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Honey Bees on Cocaine Become Hyperactive

A study on the insect’s brain found that honey bees exposed to cocaine have the tendency to become hyperactive. These insects normally alert other members of their colony when they have found good sources of nectar or pollen by performing a ‘dance’. This movement helps them provide specific instructions on how their comrades can locate the food source.

But honey bees on cocaine have been found to be “more likely to dance, regardless of the quality of the food they’ve found or the status of the hive.” This is according to the results of a study that is published in detail in this month’s issue of the Journal of Experimental Biology. The results of the said research have provided a whole new perspective on the honey bee dance language that has long been subjected to a lot of study. Furthermore, entomology and neuroscience professor Gene Robinson of the University of Illinois explains that their study reinforces the idea that there are certain instances where in honey bees are like humans in that they are also motivated by reward cues.

“The honey bee dance is this incredibly complex set of activities,” says Robinson who led this particular study. “It’s a very integrated communication system, very elaborate and very elegant, one of the seven wonders of the animal behavior world.”

This dance also plays a big role in explaining the social behavior of these animals. Robinson’s interest in this dance has led him to start looking into the action of octopamine, a neurochemical that is known to be central to insect behavior.

While solitary insects eat more in response to octopamine treatment, honey bees do not behave in the same way. Instead, they take in food of lower quality. This observation made Robinson wonder whether or not octopamine also has an effect on the foraging honey bee’s dance. Previously, the scientist found that foragers had higher levels of this chemical in their brains as compared to other bees in the same hive.

Octopamine treatment, according to a study published in 2007 by the same team of researchers, found that octopamine treatment can cause “foraging honey bees to dance more often.” This further indicated that the chemical has a considerable effect on the insects’ dance behavior as well as provided a framework for understanding the development of altruistic behavior in these colonies.

“The idea behind that study was that maybe this mechanism that structures selfish behavior – eating – was co-opted during social evolution to structure social behavior – that is, altruistic behavior,” Robinson said. “So if you’re selfish and you’re jacked up on octopamine, you eat more, but if you’re altruistic you don’t eat more but you tell others about it so they can also eat.”

However, the study hasn’t established if insects also have reward systems just as humans do. So the researchers went on to observe the effects of cocaine on the behavior of honey bees. This drug has been found to hinder the transmission of octopamine in insect brains by influencing the dopamine system.

This recent study found that cocaine can also cause hyperactivity in foraging honey bees which then supports their theory that insects also have reward systems.

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