The Most Addictive Ingredient in Cigarettes Could Make for Healthier Bees

Talk about getting a buzz (ba dum tss).

Feb 17 2015, 10:15pm

​Image: ​Steve Slater/Flickr

Bumblebees that drink nectar containing nicotine—or as I like to imagine it, the bumblebee equivalent of vaping—are better at fighting off parasites, according to a new study. And while this is news to researchers, the bees might have already figured that out a long time ago.

Researchers found that feeding parasite-infected bumblebees a diet that included certain nectar chemicals, such as nicotine, reduced the parasite load (that's the number of parasites) as much as 81 percent, according to a study published today in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

The researchers took a group of bumblebees and, in a lab, infected each bee with the same number of naturally-occurring parasite cells. They then split the bees into two groups and fed one group plain sugar water, and the other sugar water jacked up with one of eight chemical compounds. While four of the chemicals didn't have any statistically-significant effect, the other four (anabasine, nicotine, catalpol, and thymol) reduced the parasite load in the bees between 61 and 81 percent within one week, depending on the chemical.

The effects of the different nectar chemicals on the parasite load of the bees. Source: the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

Parasites are a common cause of disease in both bumblebees and honeybees. The parasite the researchers looked at (Crithidia bombi) causes one of the most common natural diseases that affect bumblebees. Some populations in nature have as much as 80 percent of their bees infected, according to Rebecca Irwin, an associate professor of biology at Dartmouth College and one of the study's authors.

"It can have very strong effects on survival and reproduction of bumblebees," Irwin told me, adding it not only reduces the number of active worker bees in the colony but impairs their ability to reproduce.

"It's not fatal right on the outset. A bee doesn't get it and die right away, but it can affect their foraging behaviour."

And while honeybees tend to get the sp​otlight when it comes to their role in agriculture and plant pollination, bumblebees play a vital role as well, Irwin said. Honeybees are more often used in agriculture because they produce larger colonies and are easier to manipulate into pollinating specific plants, but bumblebees do intense pollination of both crops and native plants, too.

"On a per bee basis, bumblebees are typically better pollinators. The difference is we haven't intensified them as much under agricultural situations," Irwin said.

The team is hoping to move forward with a field study (in the most literal sense of the term) to see if planting crops that contain these nectar chemicals will impact the effects of parasite infection in the wild. If they get similar results, it could provide a solution for supporting healthy bee populations.

"We're really interested in whether this could be a management technique for bees on farms or just anywhere," said Leif Richardson, a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Vermont and co-author of the study.

But according to unpublished research conducted by Richardson and the research team, this new insight might actually be old news to the bees. They found that, in some cases, the infected bees would go for the chemically-enhanced nectar when given the choice.

"When they're healthy they eat one thing and then when they're parasitized they might switch or add a new food that contains this additional compound," Richardson told me. "That's called self-medication."

Richardson said that, in addition to the field study, they hope to determine whether or not the bumblebees are taking advantage of these nectar chemicals naturally when they get sick.

Of course, when it comes to bee disease, most people think of colony collapse disorder first. Though it has been mostly confined to honeybees, the endemic that is causing droves of commercial bee colonies to drop dead is a grave concern, and most likely caused by humans.

The good news from research like Richardson and Irwin's is that, if we can get our act together to end the human-caused illnesses, the bees have a way of treating mother nature's brand of diseases just fine.