Ask an Expert: Nose Bee-rs


Words || Nathaniel Keesing

Her name is Beeyoncé, and she’s no regular mum. After putting Blue Hivey to bed, she decides to unwind with a glass of rosé. Her husband Jay-ZZZ is away travelling for work, so she decides to call her besties over for a girl’s night out. She’s the queen of her social group, and her friends are the drones. After predrinking and judging boys on Bumble, she pressures her friends into doing something a bit harder. She digs deep into her purse and pulls out a baggie of cocaine. They get absolutely toasted and dance their night away.
Ok, that wasn’t a real thing that happened. But while you’re drinking light beer at Ubar, bees are getting fucked up on cocaine.

It’s been 10 years since he conducted this wild experiment, but Macquarie University’s resident bee guru Dr Andrew Barron, an Associate Professor at the Department of Biological Sciences, sat down with me to talk about how he became so invested in the research of our most important pollinators, and why his research on giving bees some nose candy revealed that they aren’t so different from us.

“I was always a kid that was fascinated by animal behaviour and I was particularly fascinated by insect behaviour. If we look at insects, we don’t know what we’re looking at, we don’t know whether we’re looking at some sort of completely instinctive robot that has no mind and is just following a program. Or are we looking at something that is extremely intelligent, extremely dynamic in its behaviour, that is intention driven, that has emotion-like behaviour even?” Surprisingly, they’re much more alike to humans than you’d think.
Bees can’t talk like us. But they sure can dance like us. When a bee has found a reward for the colony, she emotes a cute little jig to communicate with the rest of the hive on not only where it is, but what the quality of the reward would be.

Barron explains, “If we treated the returning bees with cocaine, what we found is that they overestimated the value of reward in their dance. Humans who have taken cocaine report that everything feels fantastic. Their experiences feel super intense and super good. And we propose that the honey bee dance was giving us a natural readout of the bees own subjective reward perception.”

But why though? Humans and insects have between 600-800 millions years of evolution separating us, yet this drug is having profoundly similar effects on both species. Barron believes there should be a way to learn more about how cocaine acts on human brains, if we can learn how it affects our stingy little friends.

We won’t be having cocaine-infused honey on our Weet-Bix in the morning anytime soon though. Barron explains that to get ethical approval for this research, “We applied minute doses directly to individual bees, we’re talking about 1 milligram per bee. When the bee is making honey, she collects nectar from flowers and stores it in a special organ called the honey stomach. We applied cocaine directly into its bloodstream, so it could never access that honey stomach, so we weren’t polluting any of that nectar that they collected.” All I could imagine is tiny little bee-sized syringes and rolled up 5-dollar bills.

Despite this bizarre cocaine research having concluded several years ago, there is some pretty serious work still being done. Barron has two main focuses his lab is working on. First is his work with honeybee health and welfare.

“That’s responding to the problem of declining pollinator populations and the global bee populations that are struggling”. While saving our dying bees is incredibly important; our entire ecosystem relies on bees, the other focus of the lab is perhaps even more exciting.
Barron explains, “the other line of research is very much pure neuroscience, and the focus there is to understand the functions of the honeybee brains. Ultimately the idea is that we want to understand them to the point where we can replicate them”. The future of bee research is looking to be very exciting. My only hope that we don’t end up with Black Mirror-esque killer bees.