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Wednesday, December 24, 2008

High flyers: bees on cocaine 'behave like humans'


Bees given cocaine became unusually enthusiastic communicators. Photograph: Rex Features

They are highly social, adhere to a rigid class system and are intensely house-proud. And now it emerges that bees resemble human beings in one more, previously overlooked, respect: they behave just like us under the influence of cocaine.

Australian researchers found that bees which had been given a dose of cocaine threw themselves into unusually energetic dance routines, felt compelled to "talk" to their nest mates - and even went "cold turkey" when the drugs ran out.

The research, carried out at Macquarie University in Sydney, examined the behaviour of the bees after returning from a trip looking for food.

"When foraging honeybees discover a particularly good source of pollen or nectar, they fly back to the hive and perform a symbolic dance for their nest mates," said Dr Andrew Barron. "This is a specialised form of communication to tell their nest mates about the rewards they have found."

But after dabbing low doses of cocaine on the bees' backs before they went out, the researchers observed that when they returned they were more likely to dance for their nest mates, and performed particularly vigorous routines explaining where the food was located.

The dance language gave Barron and his colleagues an indication of what was going on in the bees' brains. Rather like a cokehead in a crowded nightclub, cocaine made the bees much more enthusiastic communicators. This was not simply because they were generally more energetic: the extra enthusiasm was in order to communicate with nest mates.

The results are reported in the Journal of Experimental Biology.

Next, Barron's team investigated whether the bees suffered withdrawal symptoms when the drug was removed. This involved giving the bees a cocaine diet for a week, then testing their ability to learn how to distinguish between two different smells. "The poor little buggers had to drink cocaine for a week. Then we just stopped it dead and we gave them a learning test," said Barron. "Their performance absolutely crashed."

The finding is the first time scientists have shown that bees are affected by cocaine in a similar way to humans.

Addiction is much more complex in humans than in honeybees, said Barron, but he believes bees can provide a tool for looking at some aspects of the phenomenon, such as which genes are activated when the bee's brain goes cold turkey.