Nicotine helps bees to fight parasites

Nectar from tobacco plant flowers reduces parasite infections in bumblebees

Mar 19, 2015
Nectar from tobacco plant flowers reduces parasite infections in bumblebees

Nicotine is a natural toxin, but for bees it could be a real blessing: A recent study shows that nectar from tobacco plant flowers reduces parasite infections in bumblebees by 62 percent.

A group of researchers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and Dartmouth College studied hundreds of bumblebees and their intestinal parasite Chrithidia bombi, and found that four toxic chemicals produced by plants to protect themselves against predators worked like nature’s medicine cabinet:

They reduced infection levels of the parasite significantly for seven days after infection. The two most efficient chemicals in the study were nicotine and anabasine, both of them found in the nectar of tobacco family flowers.

Evolutionary ecologist Lynn Adler from UMass emphasizes that these results may have implications for growers who depend on pollinators. She suggests that they might consider planting pollinator-friendly hedgerows and gardens, containing plants that produce natural herbal remedies for some of the common parasites and diseases that ail bees and other pollinating insects. “The more we look, the more we see that these compounds are in nectar and pollen too,” she says. “Having bees consume these protective chemicals could be a natural treatment of the future.”

Adler suggests that this insight is not altogether surprising, considering that a lot of our spices and medicines come from these so-called secondary metabolites that the plant produces to protect itself. One example is chili powder: “Because we’re big, we can eat a little chili powder on our food and it’s just a taste sensation. But for an insect the same dose might be fatal. That’s what the plant is counting on.


The results of the study are also likely to spur a re-appraisal of the use of neonicotinoids, a synthetic derivate of nicotine. It seems a logical step now for researchers to start looking into the beneficial effects of the molecule.  

Click here to read the full study.


A summary of the study was published on the News page of the University of Massachusetts Amherst.


The nicotine story has been picked up by the German magazine “Der Spiegel”. Read the full article here.

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