AUGUST
2009

 

By
Tom Turpin
 
Professor of
Entomology
Purdue University

 

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08-13-09

Download the audio of On Six Legs: MP3, WMV.

Do Drunken Bees Slur Their Buzz?

Last week honey bees from my hives discovered some wax and honey that had been standing in the barn for a couple of months.  As honey bees will do when given such an opportunity, they immediately began cleaning up the honey and carrying it back to the hive. However, some of the bees that had lapped up the enticing liquid seemed to be having trouble flying, and walking for that matter.

The bees were behaving as if they were drunk, staggering around and bumping into things. As it turns out, these bees were drunk! Some of the honey had begun to ferment, resulting in the production of alcohol. The bees were drinking a version of honey wine, an alcoholic beverage known as mead. And, as I was able to witness, the bees were behaving just like humans who have had a bit too much to drink.

The fact that many animals, including insects such as bees and wasps, will consume substances containing alcohol and, as a result, get inebriated has long been known. Some 2300 years ago, the Greek philosopher Aristotle noted that pigs - he called them swine - got a bit tipsy after consuming rotten and fermenting fruit. Today, the popular video-sharing Web site You Tube contains clips of animals behaving abnormally as a result of alcohol consumption.

Past writers and amateur and professional filmmakers alike have recorded in word and picture the alcohol-induced antics of several kinds of animals. In one oft-viewed clip filmed in Africa in 1974, many kinds of animals exhibited symptoms of alcohol intoxication. The drunken animals included elephants, giraffes, wart hogs, monkeys and baboons. These animals became victims of, as prohibitionists of bygone days called it, demon alcohol when they ate ripe fruit that had fallen from amarula trees. Fermentation of the fruit in the stomachs of the animals resulted in alcohol production. The alcohol had the same effect on the animals as it does on humans who drink the stuff - they got drunk and stumbled around.  

 Other documented examples of intoxicated animals include squirrels, dogs, goats and cows. I once witnessed a group of geese get drunk on the alcohol in antifreeze used as a coolant for engines. Unfortunately, the antifreeze was lethal, and the geese died after exhibiting some very interesting behavior.

Interesting and uncharacteristic behavior when under the influence of alcohol isn't limited to humans and other higher animals. Insects such as my honey bees also behave in strange ways, as a result of consuming alcohol. It has been reported in research studies that alcohol consumption resulted in bees flying less, walking less and grooming less. But the bees spent more time upside down. As with humans, one of the first obvious symptoms of alcohol on the body is lack of coordination. So the ability of bees to stand on their six legs is diminished. Consequently, drunken bees spend more time falling down onto their backs than do their sober colleagues.

But drunken bees have more problems than loss of muscle control. They may not be able to return to the hive because they are unable to fly. In addition, bees walking in the vicinity of the intoxicating substance are more likely to be injured in an accident or be consumed by predators. If by chance an inebriated bee does manage to return to the hive, it is likely to be rejected by the guards because it is acting strangely.

Now biological researchers are attempting to understand the physiological basis for alcoholism in animals by studying the effect of alcohol on insects such as the honey bee and the fruit fly. Insects and humans have similar nervous systems so an understanding of how alcohol affects the system in insects might be relevant to humans as well.     

As it turns out, the way that alcohol affects the insect's body is determined by gene expression. The fruit fly, the insect that has for centuries been the laboratory animal for genetic study, responds to alcohol in similar fashion to other animals. These flies get drunk and can't walk, fly or even cling to a surface. Recent research has shown that the expression of almost 600 genes in the fruit fly was affected by exposure to alcohol.

Because humans and fruit flies at the gene level respond to alcohol in the same way, an understanding of how alcohol works on the flies might give some insight into how alcohol works on humans. This would be especially important to an understanding of how genetic makeup contributes to alcoholism in humans.

The gene and behavioral similarities between insects and humans relative to the effects of alcohol raise a question in my mind about my drunken bees. Are those bees slurring their buzz?

 

 

Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Olivia Maddox