Friday, May 1, 2009

Boozing bees, part 2: "Not even a college student."






In our last post, we saw the effects of lab-induced drug abuse in bees, which were oddly reminiscent of the effects in humans. But how is that behavior the fault of the bees, you may ask?

Well, they may only get cocaine in labs. But in nature, alcohol is actually their drug of choice.

According to an artice in New Scientist ("Driven to Drink: A Sorry Tale of Bees' Boozy Life," August 8, 1992, p. 14), honey bees drinking fermented nectar have more flying accidents, die younger and are often rejected by teetotalers back at the hive. An Australian entomologist, Dr. Errol Hassan, is looking at bees imbibing both fermented sugar syrup and nectar. The alcohol content can be as high as 10% in these materials and adding fermented syrup or nectar to honey can make it "spiked."

The observation that bees are attracted to alcohol on their own goes back many years, as in this article from the New York Times of Dec 26 1898

The bee, like its human brother, is a frail and temptable creature, whose usefulness depends on absolute abstemiousness... According the credible accounts, the Cuban honey bee, to some extent, has fallen a victim to strong drink. The "workers" find it much nicer to congregate around the sugar mills, where they are always sure to discover sweet juices in ample supply. At first the bees carry on their labors diligently. Then, little by little, they learn that juices from the sugar cane contain alcohol...

Forsaking even the semblance of work, the bees imbibe the intoxicating fluid, and thenceforth the social and mental decline is marked. The sad fact is that the bees get drunk. They fly about in a dazed and listless condition, ambitionless so far as honey making is concerned. Once they have drunk from the fountain of Bacchus, they are moral and physical degenerates.

So researchers are merely taking advantage of their natural tendencies, which they say is exceedingly easy:

Most animals have to be tricked into drinking alcohol, says Charles Abramson of Ohio State University. But a honeybee will happily drink the equivalent of a human downing 10 litres of wine at one sitting.

"We can get them to drink pure ethanol, and I know of no organism that drinks pure ethanol - not even a college student," he says.




But don't try this at home - remember, these are trained professionals. Don't mess with bees!

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