Nicotine may be medicine to help bees fight parasites

A study completed in February by researchers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and Dartmouth College shows that nectar from tobacco plant flowers reduces parasite infections in bumblebees by 62 percent.

The group of researchers studied hundreds of bumblebees and their intestinal parasite, Chrithidia bombi. They discovered that four toxic chemicals produced by plants as a mode of defense actually acted as medicine in the bees and reduced infection levels of the parasite significantly for seven days after infection.

The two most effective chemicals in the study were anabasine and nicotine, both found in the nectar of tobacco family flowers.

University of Massachusetts Evolutionary Ecologist Lynn Adler said that the study's results might help growers who rely on pollinators.

"The more we look, the more we see that these compounds are in nectar and pollen too,” Adler said. “Having bees consume these protective chemicals could be a natural treatment of the future.”

Adler said that growers should think about planting pollinator-friendly hedgerows and gardens that contain plants which produce natural herbal remedies for common parasites and diseases that affect pollinating insects.

The study’s results revealed some of the beneficial effects of the nicotine molecule could possibly lead to a re-appraisal of the use of neonicotinoids, a synthetic version of nicotine.

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Dartmouth College University of Massachusetts Amherst

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