The Buzz on Bees

A new study finds that caffeine can help improve the memory of honeybees

Mar 11, 2013 | By Alexandra Sifferlin for TIME

Caffeine in certain flowers helps improve a honeybees' memory, researchers say. 

Humans aren’t the only ones getting a buzz from coffee. 

Caffeine can improve memory among honeybees and lead to better pollination, according to a recent study published in the journal Science.

The study was conducted by a team of researchers at Newcastle University in the United Kingdom. They found that the nectar of citrus flowers, such as those from grapefruit and lemon plants, as well as certain coffee flowers, contain low doses of caffeine. To get bees to feed on these flowers, the team trained the insects to associate food with the smell of the flowers. They also trained another group of bees to feed on nectar from flowers that were sweetened with a sugar, but did not contain caffeine. After 24 hours, the bees trained on caffeinated flowers returned to these plants three times as often as those trained on the sweetened flowers returned to the uncaffeinated plants.

Bees can get caffeine from citrus plants. This bee is visiting a lemon blossom.
Bees can get caffeine from citrus plants. This bee is visiting a lemon blossom.

Professor Geraldine Wright led the researchers. “Remembering floral traits is difficult for bees to perform at a fast pace as they fly from flower to flower and we have found that caffeine helps the bee remember where the flowers are,” Wright said in a statement. 

Improved memory led to better pollination. That’s because once bees sip the caffeine nectar, they continue to look for more coffee plants to pollinate. This also suggests that caffeine played a role in improving the bees’ ability to search for food.

Researchers found that caffeine’s effect on the bee brain is similar to its effect on mammals. “The change is similar to that produced by caffeine in neurons associated with learning and memory in the rat brain,” Wright says.

Figuring out ways to increase bees’ pollination habits may help in other areas.

Bee populations have been declining since 2007. The dramatic drop in the insects’ numbers has serious effects for ecosystems and the farming industry. Bees are needed in the reproduction of crops and spreading wild flower species. Understanding what keeps bees buzzing could help to make sure that the insects are able to remember and pollinate their favorite flowers.