Drunken Bees Create Buzz on Tipsy Humans

Drunken worker bees may not produce much honey, but their behavior under the influence may help researchers understand the effects of alcohol in humans (search), according to new research.

Researchers found alcohol affects bees and humans in similar ways (search) by impairing their movement and stalling their learning and memory processing, and these effects intensify according to how much alcohol they imbibe and the time since ingestion.

The study showed that honey bees that were fed the human equivalent of 200-proof grain alcohol (search) spent most of the next 40 minutes on their backs, unable to stand. But bees who drank the human equivalent of wine spent the least amount of time of their backs, and the effects of the alcohol took about 20 minutes to sink in.

The researchers presented their findings this week at the annual Society for Neuroscience conference in San Diego.

"On the molecular level, the brains of honey bees and humans work the same," says researcher Julie Mustard, a postdoctoral researcher in entomology at Ohio State University, in a news release. "Knowing how chronic alcohol use affects genes and proteins in the honey bee brain may help us eventually understand how alcoholism affects memory and behavior in humans, as well as the molecular basis of addiction."

Alcohol's Effect on Bees and Humans

In the study, researchers fed worker honey bees solutions of sugar and alcohol (ethanol) with alcohol concentrations ranging from 10 to 100 percent. The 10 percent solution was equivalent to drinking wine and the 100 percent solution was equivalent to drinking grain alcohol.

The bees were then observed for 40 minutes, and researchers measured the amount of time they spent walking, stopped, grooming, flying, and upside down to determine the effect of alcohol.

The study showed that drinking alcohol significantly decreased the amount of time spent walking, grooming, or flying, and increased the amount of time the bees spent upside down.

"These bees had lost postural control," says Mustard. "They couldn't coordinate their legs well enough to flip themselves back over again."

Researchers found the likelihood that the bees exhibited change in their behavior increased along with the potency of the alcoholic beverage they drank.

"Honey bees are very social animals, which makes them a great model for studying the effects of alcohol in a social context," says researcher Geraldine Wright, also a postdoctoral researcher in entomology at Ohio State University, in the release.

"Many people get aggressive when they drink too much," says Wright. "We want to learn if ethanol consumption makes the normally calm, friendly honey bee more aggressive. We may be able to examine how ethanol affects the neural basis of aggression in this insect, and in turn learn how it affects humans."

By  Jennifer Warner, reviewed by  Brunilda Nazario, MD

SOURCES: Maze, I. "Influence of Ethanol on Locomotion and Behavior in the Honey Bee," presented at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience, San Diego, Oct. 23-27. News release, Ohio State University.