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Bumblebees Drink Nicotine To Heal Parasitic Infections

Bumblebee species Bombus impatiens appear to regulate parasitic infections by consuming nectar that contains nicotine. The drug seems to account for a significant decrease in parasites gnawing at the bees. However, the medicine is found to be costly: the nicotine might be affecting the bees’ appetite adversely.

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Humans are not the only ones who take to medicinal plants and other substances for healing purposes. As a matter of fact, many other species seek out cures in nature. Among these are the bumblebees. A new study has revealed that some species of bumblebee might be after nectar with high concentrations of alkaloids like nicotine to treat infections with gut parasites. What an amazing fact would this be: while humans drink honey harvested from bees as cure, the bees themselves need to seek out medicines in nature!

When individuals of the bumblebee species Bombus impatiens consumed the alkaloids, the number of parasites affecting them decreased in number. The researchers then suggested that the bees might be self-medicating themselves through the nectar. They then set out to test their hypothesis.

The researchers found that bumblebees infected with gut parasite Crithidia bombi were more likely to consume nicotine-containing nectar than uninfected bees.

Another finding showed that – compared to infected bees which did not consume the nicotine – those infected bees which did consume the substance did not have an increased life expectancy  in spite of the it causing a decrease in the parasitic population. The scientists then explained that though the benefit does not extend itself fully to the individual bee (by enhancing life expectancy), the reduction of the parasite leads to a decrease in the severity of the disease, ultimately impacting positively on the colony of bees as a whole. For instance, the bees might become less likely to infect other members of their community. But, this needs to be confirmed.

“While it’s clear that there is some benefit to nicotine consumption for parasite-infected bees, a key challenge now is to discover exactly how such natural medication limits the impact of the disease on the bees’ society,” said Dr. David Baracchi, one of the authors.

Yet another observation was that the nicotine consumption apparently came with a cost. The appetite of the bees seemed to pay for the consequences – this can be compared to the loss of appetite in humans who smoke tobacco. Furthermore, the nicotine seems to be even more damaging to uninfected bees: the latter’s life expectancy decreased considerably when given a daily diet of the drug.

It seems that bees are so intelligent that they can select flowers while taking into consideration the medicinal properties of the nectar they contain to keep parasites at bay.

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