I watched a short from Wholphin No. 5 yesterday called Drunk Bees. Humans have been making mead from honey for thousands of years, but it turns out bees are also aware of ethanol. They appear to like it (they exhibit Pavlovian conditioning) and can even get addicted. Buzzed bees (sorry) become more aggressive and show impaired flight patterns, strangely conforming to expectations.
A few flower species have taken advantage of bees’ alcoholic tendencies and evolved fermented nectar that a subset of bees are drawn to. Bees that have been ousted from their hives for repeat drunkenness abandon their social role at the colony and spend their days flying between these alcohol-bearing flora. The attraction is strong enough that these flowers manage to get pollinated and reproduce.
This is fascinating for all kinds of reasons, but I am especially amazed at what it says about alcohol and neural circuitry. Despite the enormous differences, bee brains appear to be affected by alcohol in many of the same ways human brains are. This suggests that alcohol affects both vertebrate and invertebrate brains at some very basic levels and that our neural circuits have more commonalities than we might have expected.
Bees do have dopamine regulated feedback loops, and some scientists are looking at the way alcohol interacts with that mechanism. It’s also possible that alcohol’s effects come from altered functioning at the cellular and molecular level. Gene and protein expression are almost certainly affected by the presence of alcohol. And the mechanism underlying alcoholism in bees is probably very analogous to human alcohol addiction. The BBC ran this a few years back.
I’m also really interested in the evolution of social insects and the fact that bees either excommunicate or eat the legs off of drunken hive-members, but I can hold those thoughts for now.