The NIDA Blog Team
October 14 2015

News reports are gaining attention on how bees have been dying in large numbers—much higher numbers than before 2006. Beekeepers and scientists have been mystified about why this is happening. Dying honeybees are a big problem for farmers, too, because the bees pollinate agricultural crops—okra, apples, cabbage, broccoli, and dozens more—and help them grow. So fewer bees means fewer crops, which is bad for food supplies and the economy.

No, you haven’t accidentally clicked over to a blog for bee lovers. Believe it or not, the bee crisis—and possible solutions to it—may be closely connected to the subject of drugs.

Getting their buzz on

Some scientists think one cause of the bee crisis is a class of pesticides called neonicotinoids. These pesticides are chemically related to nicotine, the addictive substance in tobacco (and most e-cigarettes), and are used on many crops—crops that are then pollinated by bees.  This means that when bees pollinate the crops with this type of pesticide, they pick up some of it up.

Some researchers speculate that bees are actually getting addicted to the pesticide—much like people get addicted to nicotine. Just like those addicted to cigarettes, bees may keep going back to neonicotinoids for another “hit.” Bye-bye, bee.

In one recent study, bees preferred nectar laced with neonicotinoids to nectar without the pesticides. The researchers found that the bees couldn’t taste a difference between the two types of nectars (by using an electron microscope to see if the taste receptors in the bees’ mouths were stimulated).  This is why the researchers think the neonicotinoids might have hooked the bees’ brains.

(For now, the Environmental Protection Agency has stopped approving new outdoor uses for neonicotinoids, while it waits to see results from additional studies on bees’ health.)

Are we bee-brained?

Does it matter if the human brain and the bee brain act in similar ways? Over at the NIDA website, Dr. Nora Volkow, NIDA’s director, says that the bee research suggests that studying the science behind addiction in people might also give us a better understanding of animal behavior. If it does, we may learn how to end the bee crisis.

More research will reveal if, like people addicted to tobacco and other dangerous substances, bees are getting hooked on the same chemicals that could be killing them.

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