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Bumblebees may see bump in pollination effectiveness from caffeine

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Tuesday, September 14th 2021, 9:21 am - Giving bumblebees a shot of caffeine could enhance their pollination efforts, according to a new study.

While caffeine is commonly consumed by humans as a way to wake up or increase energy levels, it has also been found to enhance the pollination production efforts of bumblebees.

A study published in Current Biology earlier this month states that giving bumblebees with a similar dose of caffeine could help them pollinate more effectively.

SEE ALSO: Pollinator Park: What a world without pollinators could look like

The examination was conducted to assess whether the bees could be "primed" to target specific odours. Researchers prepared inexperienced bumblebees by subjecting them to a sugar solution, a sugar solution and a target synthetic odour blend, or a caffeinated sugar solution and the odour blend.

The examination found that the inexperienced bees subjected to caffeine made more first visits to target robotic flowers discharging the target odour compared to control bees or those given just the odour.

Bumblebee/Canadian Wildlife Federation Bumblebee. (Canadian Wildlife Federation)

"Caffeine-primed bees tended to improve their floral handling time faster. Although the effects of caffeine were short-lived, we show that food-locating behaviours in free-flying bumblebees can be enhanced by caffeine provided in the nest," researchers explained in the study.

CAFFEINE FOUND IN NECTAR OF SOME PLANTS

As part of the examination, the bees were freed in the lab where automated flowers were either soaked in the target odour or linalool, a mixture not found in strawberry flowers.

“We were interested in seeing whether the bees would go for all of the flowers equally since they were all equally rewarded, or whether they go for the flowers that smell like the ones that they been kind of trained on in the nest,” study author Sarah Arnold, of the natural resources institute at the University of Greenwich, told The Guardian.

Researchers also noted caffeine is an extensively occurring plant defense chemical that is found in the nectar of some plants such as Coffea or Citrus, possibly altering pollinator behaviour to elevate pollination.

The review mentioned that caffeine empowers worker bees to form stronger associations between floral odour and food, and that the insects will continue to strive for the aroma when foraging outside the nest.

Pollinator paradise: Bumblebee Bumblebee. (Nathan Howes)

"We demonstrate that this can occur even when no caffeine is present on the target and the target-visiting behaviour is decoupled from the experience of receiving caffeine. This laboratory-based study provides the first evidence of caffeine-mediated memory enhancement in free-flying bees when target flowers were not baited with caffeine," the study outlined.

In a 2013 analysis, honeybees given caffeine form longer-lasting olfactory memory associations, which could give plants with caffeinated nectar an "adaptive advantage" by inducing more visits to flowers.

The decline of wild pollinators from habitat loss and pesticide use, for example, has forced some fruit growers to use managed insects such as commercial bumblebees to fertilize their crops, but to little success.

"Consequently, there is potential to redesign commercial colonies to enhance bees’ forage focus or even bias bees to forage on a specific crop," the researchers stated.

Thumbnail courtesy of the Canadian Wildlife Federation.

Find Nathan Howes on Twitter.

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