A study conducted by entomology and neuroscience professor Gene Robinson from the University of Illinois sheds new light on the way insect brain works proving that honey bees on cocaine tend to overreact.

Usually, foraging honey bees alert the others from the hive about food sources only when more food is necessary or when the quality of the discovered food is superior. The bee performs a special dance called ”round” or “waggle” through which they can send complex messages related to the exact location of the discovered food.

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

When on cocaine, honey bees tend to dance no matter what the quality of the food or the situation of the hive is. This shows that, just like people, bees are motivated by the feeling of reward, altruism being also important in their relations.

Being more and more interested in the subject, Robison started to study octopamine, a neurochemical which affects insect behavior especially the one related to movement and eating.

Some solitary insects respond to this substance by eating more, but bees accept lower-quality food. While trying to see what the effects were on the way bees dance, Robinson discovered that foragers had the highest level of octopamine. When this level was increased, the bees started to dance more often, this giving the first clues regarding the evolution of the altruistic behavior.

This proves that when it comes to selfish behavior at solitary insects, they simply eat more; however, altruistic insects don’t do that, but tell the others so that they could benefit too.

Cocaine has other effects as it interferes with the octopamine transit also having some strong effects on mammals’ and people’s reward system. It also affects the dopamine system, this substance being very important for the way people respond to pleasure or reward, one of the stimuli being altruistic behavior.

The fact that cocaine makes bees dance more means that they do, in fact, have a reward system related to this kind of behavior.

Further studies showed that cocaine does not make bees simply move more or in inappropriate places as the others bees seemed not to be affected while the foragers became more active only when it came to sending messages through dancing. Moreover, bees do not dance every time they go on a search trip and the information they send is intact, which proves that a reward system exists indeed.

Just like people, bees experienced withdrawal symptoms when the drug was no longer given to them, which proves that bees could be used as subject for substance-abuse research.

Source: The University of Illinois

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