Even Bees Are Abuzz About Caffeine

A bee pollinates a flower.

Many of us can’t get through the day without at minimum one cup of coffee, or at least, we’d rather not think about trying. No matter how you choose to ingest caffeine, it is an awesome source of energy and focus for legions of hackers and humans. And evidently, the same goes for pollinator bees.

You’ve probably heard that there aren’t enough bees around anymore to pollinate all the crops that need pollinating. That’s old news. One solution was to raise them commercially and then truck them to farmers’ fields where they’re needed. The new problem is that the bees wander off and pollinate wildflowers instead of the fields they’re supposed to be pollinating. But there’s hope for these distracted bees: Scientists at the University of Greenwich have discovered that bees under the influence of caffeine are more likely to stay on track when given a whiff of the flower they’re supposed to be pollinating.

Priming, trials, and results of giving bees caffeinated sugar water in an attempt to keep them on task.
Image via Cell

Percolating Proof

For the purposes of experimentation, scientists divided a swarm of bees into three groups: one got caffeinated sugar water and a blast of strawberry flower scent, the second got plain sugar water plus the scent, and the third got plain sugar water and no scent.

Then came the moment of truth — they released the bees into an indoor field of robotic flowers. Some of the flowers gave off the strawberry smell. Others emitted a different scent meant to distract the bees, and all the flowers contained plain sugar water as a reward for discovery.

The results point to a strong association between caffeine and scent: 70.4% of the caffeinated bees went straight for the strawberry flowers, while only 60% of the plain sugar water bees went for the strawberries first.

After a while, bees from all three groups eventually went for the distraction flowers. But that part of the experiment seems a bit skewed, as these distraction flowers were much closer in proximity to the target flowers than they would be in the real world. So until farmers set up caffeinated sugar water troughs for their bees to congregate before work, we won’t know how effective or long-lasting the jolt could potentially be.

There is research indicating that caffeine does enhance memory performance in humans, at least the college-aged ones suffering through early-morning exams. Many of us enjoy plenty of caffeine for focus well past the university years, including yours truly and our own [Jenny List].

Via adafruit

Images via @chrisdubai

32 thoughts on “Even Bees Are Abuzz About Caffeine

    1. Living here in Kona, I can watch the bees busy at work on the very few days that coffee flowers here. Maybe caffeine is produced to ensure that the bees stay intensely active for that brief pollination window…They can die afterwards.

    1. Many relied on the much much stronger effect of nicotine. The chain smoking graduate student was much more about the awesome focus and concentration than it was about addiction. I was in Silicon Valley and quit smoking in the early 80’s and felt plain stupid for at least year. I wonder if the success of anti-smoking efforts has lowered the US national IQ by 15 points. It would explain a lot.

    2. Isn’t that why they invented Jolt Cola? I thought it was a joke, until I actually saw some at a store.

      Before that, when I saw “Jolt”, I thought of a 6502 based board in the first issue of Byte

  1. Alternative: caffeinated bees just prefer strawberry flowers :)

    Now seriously. Let’s get our environment back into a state where bees can friggin’ /survive/.

    This might, /just/ — you know — might enhance our survival chances too. Just sayin’.

      1. You have to look at two separate numbers. On the one hands there’s wild bees, bumblebees and so on and OTOH there’s managed bees/hives.

        The latter is growing, see official statistics of the FAO for example. This depends on where you are, thought. In Europe and Northern America this number is decreasing, too.

        Bees and how they’re used is an extremely complex topic, it’s not easily scribbled onto a napkin with a few words and numbers…

      2. As a photographer I can say that in any large park I see lots of bees, I photographed probably 100 species this year, and in all the locations there were also lots of European honey bees.

        However, if I visit an area surrounded by farms, there are few insects of any sort. Just a few miles from non-agricultural areas with plenty of bees.

        The bees won’t all die, because they’re not all in places that are extremely hostile to insects as farms.

    1. you speak of deformed wing virus. and that problem has be solved by a polypore mushroom. Bees naturally fly to it, uncover the mycelium, and eat it as an anti-viral. It stops the deformed wing virus, and they live longer lives.

  2. I was going to say that the bee myth was total rubbish based on my empirical observations, but then I remembered that I have a row of coffee plants. :-) I guess my place is the party spot for the neighbourhood bees.

  3. Hackers drink Club Mate, not coffee.
    Also coffee is a drug you need more and more to maintain your level, then try to skip one.
    “locked in for life subscription with diminishing benefits”

  4. “The new problem is that the bees wander off and pollinate wildflowers instead of the fields they’re supposed to be pollinating.”
    That’s not the problem. The problem is that bees starve because of monocultures and all the poison put onto crop. So by instinct they seek the healthy stuff with variety.
    And the solution here is to drug the bees?

    1. As a beekeeper: 100% this. ALL the problems are man-made. Starving bees, crippled bees, ill bees.

      You don’t see much more than three sorts of grain plus corn here (Germany). Locally there’s some other stuff but nothing bees can use, no pollen no honey.

      Some farmers started to plant wild flowers near/around their field. It’s a start and better than nothing. Everything else is seen as weed and killed by pesticides. Disgusting.

    1. Old Hermit here. I make my coffee by putting grounds in a pot of boiling water after it’s removed from the heat. Sits for an hour. More water added. As soon as it again starts to boil it’s removed from the heat. Sits cools and goes in fridge. When it’s cold pour liquid off grounds stay on the bottom. Store concentrate in fridge. Add cold water and mix to taste. I drink only cold coffee. No water. A gallon of concentrate lasts about a week. I’m a geek. Including in my studies is a foreign language. I never stop learning. At almost 75 educating myself is still a joy. Yes, I use a TENS unit. Some days I can’t walk well but you can bet im reading something. Thanks gents.

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