Ok, this is one of the weirder holiday news releases:

Honey bees on cocaine dance more

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.

Actual Citation:

“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.

Posted by Gwen Pearson

Writer. Nerd. Insect Evangelist. Have you heard the good news? BUGS!


  1. I was under the impression that rather than eating the pollen and nectar they collect, the field worker bees return it all to the hive where the nectar is converted into honey for food. Is my understanding incorrect? If the field workers are only collecting raw materials for later conversion into food I don’t see where altruism is involved. In fact, this behaviour might be the reverse – more like Tom Sawyer and whitewashing the fence…

  2. I think his statement is making a comparison between what solitary bees do, and what the highly social honeybees do.
    Solitary bees are all on their own, and don’t share; they directly compete each other. Honeybees recruit additional workers to help gather what they’ve found. When a good resource is found, they share the info to help the hive harvest it. They do collect nectar and pollen, and offering some of the nectar is part of the recruitment dance. (“look what I found! Have a taste!”

    I thought about a longer discourse on the dynamics of social altruism, and then decided I was too full of pumpkin pie and left it out.
    From your comment, now I’m re-thinking that….

  3. See, and this is why I read your blog. First of, I didn’t know that insect brains didn’t have dopamine. Why, I wonder? And what about oysters. (The green smear that bugs make when squished reminds me they, like clams and oysters don’t have hemoglobin. Does the lack of hemoglobin relate to the lack of dopamine? ) Second, the altruism idea is fascinating. I didn’t know that insects functioned in the realm of pleasure and reward, I thought their brains were just I/O calculators running set subroutines. Neat, neat, neat.

  4. Wow, thanks! Although I should make sure to note that there is no proof that the altruism is a conscious choice in insects–only that it’s been selected for over time.
    So they may just have altruistic subroutines :)

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