Coffee Nectar Gives Bees a Memory ‘Buzz’

March 7, 2013 2:00 pm Last Updated: April 2, 2013 3:42 am



A new U.K. study has found that caffeine in nectar encourages honeybees to remember the scent and come back for more.

The nectar of coffee and citrus flowers tends to contain caffeine, the researchers discovered. Bees don’t like it when there’s too much caffeine in their food, but a small amount greatly improves their memory of the flower’s scent. 

“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,” said study lead author Geraldine Wright at Newcastle University in a press release.

“In turn, bees that have fed on caffeine-laced nectar are laden with coffee pollen and these bees search for other coffee plants to find more nectar, leading to better pollination.”

“So, caffeine in nectar is likely to improve the bee’s foraging prowess while providing the plant with a more faithful pollinator.”

The researchers tested the bees with a sugar solution containing caffeine. They found that the bees that drank that solution were three times more likely to remember the scent the next day than bees that drank plain sugar water.

Three days later, the bees fed on caffeine were still twice as likely to remember the scent.

“This work helps us understand the basic mechanisms of how caffeine affects our brains,” said Wright. “What we see in bees could explain why people prefer to drink coffee when studying.”

The study could also help prevent bee population declines, which have harmful effects on crop harvests and ecosystems. 

“Understanding how bees choose to forage and return to some flowers over others will help inform how landscapes could be better managed,” study co-author Phil Stevenson said in the release.

“Understanding a honeybee’s habits and preferences could help find ways to reinvigorate the species to protect our farming industry and countryside.”

The study was published on March 8 in the journal Science.

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