Caffeine in Floral Nectar Enhances a Pollinator's Memory of Reward

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Science  08 Mar 2013:
Vol. 339, Issue 6124, pp. 1202-1204
DOI: 10.1126/science.1228806

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Bees Get That Caffeine "Buzz"

Caffeine improves memory in humans, millions of whom find that their daily dose enhances clarity, focus, and alertness. The human relationship with caffeine is relatively recent, however, and thus its impact on our brains is likely a by-product of its true ecological role. Caffeine occurs naturally in the floral nectar of Coffea and Citrus plants. Wright et al. (p. 1202; see the Perspective by Chittka and Peng) found that caffeine presented at naturalistic levels significantly improved the ability of bees to remember and locate a learned floral scent and potentiated the responses of neurons involved in olfactory learning and memory.


Plant defense compounds occur in floral nectar, but their ecological role is not well understood. We provide evidence that plant compounds pharmacologically alter pollinator behavior by enhancing their memory of reward. Honeybees rewarded with caffeine, which occurs naturally in nectar of Coffea and Citrus species, were three times as likely to remember a learned floral scent as were honeybees rewarded with sucrose alone. Caffeine potentiated responses of mushroom body neurons involved in olfactory learning and memory by acting as an adenosine receptor antagonist. Caffeine concentrations in nectar did not exceed the bees' bitter taste threshold, implying that pollinators impose selection for nectar that is pharmacologically active but not repellent. By using a drug to enhance memories of reward, plants secure pollinator fidelity and improve reproductive success.

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