A new study has discovered that bumblebees might benefit from two surprising substances: nicotine and caffeine.
According to scientists at the University of Massachusetts and Dartmouth College, bumblebees that consumed natural toxins found in plant nectar, such as nicotine and caffeine, were less vulnerable to being infected by Crithidia bombi, a common intestinal parasite.
"We found that eating some of these compounds reduced pathogen load in the bumblebee's gut, which not only may help the individual bees, but likely reduced the pathogen Crithidia spore load in their feces, which in turn should lead to a lower likelihood of transmitting the disease to other bees," said Lynn Adler, one of the co-authors of the study.
"Because plants just sit there and can't run away from things that want to eat them, they have evolved to be amazing chemists. They make biological compounds called secondary metabolites, which are chemicals not involved in growth or reproduction, to protect themselves. They are amazing in the diversity of what they can produce for protecting themselves or for attracting pollinators."
That doesn't mean you should leave freshly brewed coffee and a pack of menthols out by your flowers this spring. But according to Entomology Today, these discoveries could help growers keep bee populations strong. Companion planting, a method of planting one plant next to another to ward off pests, has long been utilized to keep crops healthy. By planting herbal remedies to help pollinators thrive, growers could be helping themselves.
In 2014, the White House had this to say about the growing bee issue, “Pollinators contribute substantially to the economy of the United States and are vital to keeping fruits, nuts, and vegetables in our diets. Over the past few decades, there has been a significant loss of pollinators — including honey bees, native bees, birds, bats, and butterflies — from the environment. The problem is serious and poses a significant challenge that needs to be addressed to ensure the sustainability of our food production systems, avoid additional economic impacts on the agricultural sector, and protect the health of the environment.”
"The more we look, the more we see that these compounds are in nectar and pollen too," said Adler. "With so many people looking at bee health these days, it's taken a long time for us to realize that perhaps we should be paying attention to how floral secondary compounds mediate pollinator dynamics and their interactions with pathogens."
Bees aren't the only species that may benefit from nicotine. In 2012, researchers discovered that urban birds that placed cigarette butts in nests had fewer parasites thanks, in part, to nicotine. Not that the study advocated for cigarette pollution to line the streets, but it did note that this was an interesting potential adaptation made by birds to a changing environment.
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