We have a lot to thank bees for, so maybe we should let them share our lattes.
It turns out that bees like caffeine, and that ingesting it actually boosts their memories. But where can they get it? They’re attracted to citrus flowers because they have caffeine-laced nectar, which hooks them the same way coffee hooks human imbibers.
The New York Times quotes brain specialist Geraldine Wright as saying, "The plant is using this as a drug to change a pollinator’s behavior for its own benefit." In other words, if the bees remember where those flowers are, they’ll return again and again to pollinate them.
Several varieties of coffee and citrus plants have toxic concentrations of caffeine in their leaves and other tissues, but low concentrations, similar to that in weak coffee, in the nectar itself. The toxic concentrations help plants fend off predators, while the nectar addicts bees.
The Times quotes bee specialist Lars Chittka as saying that in the marketplace of plants seeking pollinators, the plants "want their customers to remain faithful." To this end, they produce all sorts of chemicals that affect animal behavior, such as sugar in nectar, memorable fragrances, and even substances in fruit that can act like laxatives in order to assure quick seed dispersal.
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