Your first question is probably “Why the heck are they giving the good stuff to insects?” I’m imagining a bunch of worker bees with tiny, tiny rolled-up dollar bills…..
In humans, cocaine influences our brains’ dopamine system, which helps control reward responses, motivation, and sleep, among other things. In insects, dopamine is replaced by octopamine, but has similar important brain functions.
So, if you want to jack around with an insect’s motivation or response to rewards, you give it cocaine. Coke interferes with octopamine transit in insect brains.
Ok, so now we know why cocaine–why bees on cocaine?
“Researchers have found that honey bees on cocaine tend to exaggerate. Normally, foraging honey bees alert their comrades to potential food sources only when they’ve found high quality nectar or pollen, and only when the hive is in need….
Foraging honey bees on cocaine are more likely to dance, regardless of the quality of the food they’ve found or the status of the hive, the authors of the study report.
Because cocaine causes honey bees to dance more, the researchers said they think their results support the idea of a reward system in the insect brain, a relatively new idea. When they dance, the bees are behaving altruistically–they are sharing information about food, rather than just hoarding it to themselves. In the words of one of the authors:
“If you’re selfish and you’re jacked up on octopamine, you eat more, but if you’re altruistic you don’t eat more but you tell others about it so they can also eat.”
Humans behave altruistically because it makes us feel good (pleasure). Honey bees, as social insects, may also have been selected to behave this way as a reward response.
Sadly, the bees that got the cocaine also showed signs of withdrawal. No word on whether Amy Winehouse is available for bee rehab consultation.
“Effects of cocaine on honey bee dance behaviour.” By Barron, A. B., Maleszka, R., Helliwell, P. G. and Robinson, G. E. Journal of Experimental Biology No. 212, Dec. 26, 2008.
Thanks to macropoulos for the photo.