Bumblebees Self-Medicate In The Wild?

Courtesy of Leif Richardson

Courtesy of Leif Richardson

Bumblebees Self-Medicate In The Wild?

The rain.  Pestilence of crops.  Fly-swatters.  Bees have many natural enemies.  Along with the alarming numbers of mass die offs and their contribution to the food economy the world over bees also have small, sometimes microscopic foes.  New evidence suggests that bumblebees use a variety of wild plants from Turtlehead, also known as balmony, and Nicotine.

Known as zoopharmacognosy (literally “animal-drug-knowing”), the most common examples involve parrots eating clay to absorb toxins in the gut or dogs eating grass to make themselves sick.  Earlier this year after observing a reduction in intestinal parasites among certain bumblebees who sought high-alkaloid nectar, a team from Queen Mary University of London decided to put the theory of self-medication to the test.

They found that, “bumblebees (Bombus impatiens) infected with the gut parasite Crithidia bombi were more likely than healthy bees to feed on nectar laced with nicotine.  The nicotine reduced the level of parasites in the insects’ gut for a few days, but it didn’t actually increase the bees’ life expectancy when compared with infected bees who hadn’t sampled the fortified nectar.”

In a more recent series of tests, Leif Richardson of the University of Vermont and his colleagues studied the effects which a group of floral nectar compounds, known as iridoid glycoside, have on both bumblebee foraging and plant reproduction.  The team focused on two compounds – aucubin and catalpol – in the nectar and pollen from four populations of a wetland plant called turtlehead.

Study author Rebecca Irwin said in a statement, “We show that bees might be able to self-medicate, altering their foraging behavior when parasitized so as to maximize their consumption of beneficial plant secondary metabolite compounds.”  Put in layman terms: When the bees feel bad, they consume more medicinal plant nectar.

What’s interesting about the bees’ use of the turtlehead flower is that turtlehead is often made into a tonic that is claimed to be beneficial for indigestion, constipation, and stimulating the appetite among humans.

Furthermore, the team also found that nectar chemistry also affects plant reproductive success.  Flowers with the highest concentrations of iridoid glycosides in their nectar contribute much more pollen to other flowers after a bee’s visit.

What are your thoughts?  Is this just further evidence of the amazing world of the ecosystem?  Are bees actively looking for a fighting chance?  Join the conversation below, on Facebook in the Dark Matter News group, and on Twitter using the hashtag #DMTalk.

W D King


Walter king is a sushi enthusiast. A cat lover. A star gazer. An ex-skateboarder, with the destroyed knees to prove it. A local boy raised in Hawaii. He spent much of his youth listening to art bell, infecting his brain with all matter of gray area thought provoking ideas like time travel, collective consciousness, and who can forget: Bigfoot. He's a loving husband and first time father. A movie junkie. A cliff diving, mud slinging, midday dreamer. He also kind of dabbles in indie film production, music production, and photography. He is survived by his unflinching whit and dry sense of humor.

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1 Response

  1. September 9, 2015

    […] Dark Matter News The rain. Pestilence of crops. Fly-swatters. Bees have many natural enemies. Along with the alarming numbers of mass die offs and their contribution to the food economy the world over bees also have small, sometimes microscopic foes. The post Bumblebees Self-Medicate In The Wild? appeared first on Dark Matter News.http://darkmatternews.com/bumblebees-self-medicate-wild/ […]

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