Repellence and attraction of Apis mellifera foragers by nectar alkaloids

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Plant secondary metabolites present naturally in nectar, such as alkaloids, may change the behavioural responses of floral visitors and affect pollination. Some studies have shown that nectar containing low concentrations of these secondary metabolites is preferred by honey bee foragers over pure nectar. However, it remains unclear whether this is caused by dependence or addictive behaviour, a simple taste preference, or by other conditions such as self-medication. In our choice experiment, free-flying bees were presented with artificial flowers holding 20% sucrose containing 0.5−50 μg ml−1 of one of the naturally occurring nectar alkaloids - caffeine, nicotine, senecionine, and gelsemine. Nectar uptake was determined by weighing each flower and comparing the weight to that of the control flower. Our experimental design minimized memorizing and marking; despite this, caffeine was significantly preferred at concentrations 0.5−2 μg ml−1 over control nectar; this preference was not observed for other alkaloids. All of the compounds tested were repellent at concentrations above 5 μg ml−1. We confirmed previous reports that bees exhibit a preference for caffeine, and hypothesize that this is not due only to addictive behaviour but is at least partially mediated by taste preference. We observed no significant preference for nicotine or any other alkaloid.

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