Bees that are high on cocaine behave more altruistically than sober bees do. Scientists report today in The Journal of Experimental Biology that coked-up bees are much more enthusiastic about helping other bees find food.
Illinois entomologist Gene Robinson and his colleagues say this "enthusiasm" manifests itself when the bees perform their "waggle dances" (pictured) that communicate the location of food to other bees. These dances, full of highly specific movements, are performed in a "dance floor" area of the hive and show the other bees which direction to fly to get food. Usually bees only perform these dances when they've discovered a particularly choice or plentiful source of nectar. But bees on coke perform the waggle dances far more often, which Robinson interprets as altruistic behavior.
Scientists believe that the bees' cocaine-fueled dances are evidence that bees have a reward system in their brains that gets triggered by the drug. And this is where things get interesting.
One theory of altruism holds that it's a co-optation of the brain's reward system. The idea is that creatures evolved to behave altruistically when their selfish reward systems became involved in social behaviors. Robinson points out that behaving altruistically often excites the reward centers of the human brain.
Now he's proven that bees have a reward system in their brains too - and that they've undergone the same evolutionary shift as humans, using that reward system to fuel altruism.
This study provides strong support for the idea that bees have a reward system, that it's been co-opted and it's now involved in a social behavior, which motivates them to tell their hive mates about the food that they've found.
Bees also seem to go through withdrawal when they have been given cocaine regularly and then are deprived of it.
This means bee brains are closer to being like human brains than we thought, at least in some respects. More importantly, it means that cocaine makes us all nicer, more giving people - at least until we get sober again.
Image via HowStuffWorks.com.