Bees on java.

Scientific American marvels at caffeinated bumblebees, and the researchers who give busy bees caffeine and sugar to make them more focused and efficient:

[University of Greenwich ecologist Sarah] Arnold and her colleagues showed that feeding bumblebees caffeine while exposing them to a target floral scent encourages them to seek out that smell when they leave the nest. The caffeinated bees visit the target-scented flowers more quickly and often than those without that extra boost. The findings could be applied to industrial agriculture to train bees to stay more on track, the team reported Wednesday in Current Biology.

…Arnold and her team set up three groups of bumblebees. One got caffeinated sugar water and a blast of strawberry-flower odor. Another received plain sugar water and the odor, and yet another got just the plain sugar water. None of the bees had previously encountered any type of flower or floral scent. Each group was released from its hive and into a laboratory arena dotted with robotic flowers, some of which puffed out the same strawberry smell and others that released a completely different “distractor” floral scent. All of the fake flowers contained reservoirs of sugar water (without caffeine) for the bees to lap up upon selection.

The caffeinated bees showed a clear preference for the faux strawberry flowers, with 70.4 of them visiting the target blossoms right away. Just 60 percent of the noncaffeinated but odor-primed subjects made a beeline for the plastic strawberries first, and the bees that received neither caffeine nor the priming scent visited the strawberry flowers a little under half of the time, an expected result because they had never “learned” which plants to try in the first place.

Bees exposed to both caffeine and odor formed a “super strong association” between the two, Arnold says, suggesting that a bee might think: “When I had that odor in the past, I got this really nice [caffeinated] sugar and I remember that really clearly.” With each consecutive flower visit, these bees’ pace also increased faster than that of the noncaffeinated bees—indicating that caffeine might additionally enhance their motor skills.

You can read more of Arnold’s research here, in Current Biology.