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Why Do Bees Get Drunk in Australia?

Bees are winged insects closely related to wasps and are known for their role in pollination. Bees are best known for their ability to produce honey. Bees are a monophyletic lineage within the Apoidea superfamily. They are now classified as a clade known as Anthophila. There are over 16,000 species of bees classified into seven biological families. But did you know bees can get drunk by absorbing alcohol from flowers?

When it gets hot in Australia, the nectar in some flowers ferments and turns into alcohol. Bees that become inebriated from nectar are not allowed to return to their hive; guard bees keep them out to prevent them from converting the nectar into alcohol honey.

The Evolution of the Bee

Bees’ ancestors were wasps in the Crabronidae family, predators of other insects. The switch from insect prey to pollen may have occurred due to the consumption of prey insects that were flower visitors and were partially covered with pollen when fed to the wasp larvae. The pollen wasps may have evolved from predatory ancestors in the same way that vespoid wasps did. Cretotrigona Prisca, a Cretaceous corbiculate bee, is the oldest non-compression bee fossil discovered in New Jersey amber. 

Melittosphex burmensis, an early Cretaceous fossil, was initially thought to be an extinct lineage of pollen-collecting Apoidea sister to the modern bees. Still, subsequent research has rejected the claim that Melittosphex is a bee, or even a member of the Apoidea superfamily to which bees belong, instead of classifying the lineage as incertae sedis within the Aculeata. By the Eocene, there was already a lot of variation among eusocial bee lineages. (Source: Museum of The Earth)

What Do Bees Look Like?

Bees distinguish themselves from closely related groups such as wasps by having branched or plume-like setae, combs on the forelimbs for cleaning their antennae, minor anatomical differences in limb structure, and the venation of the hind wings; and, in females, by having the seventh dorsal abdominal plate divided into two half-plates.

Honey bees are approximately 15 mm long and light brown. Honey bees are typically oval-shaped insects with golden-yellow coloring and brown bands. Although honey bee body color varies by species, with some honey bees having predominantly black bodies, almost all honey bees have varying dark-to-light striations.

These light and dark stripes serve a purpose in the honey bee’s survival. Unlike other species, which hide when they detect predators nearby, the honey bee’s brightly colored bodies serve as a warning to predators or honey robbers of the honey bee’s ability to sting. (Source: Orkin)

How Will Alcohol Affect the Bees?

Researchers gave honey bees varying levels of ethanol, the intoxicating agent in liquor. They observed the bees’ behavioral responses, specifically, how much time they spent flying, walking, standing still, grooming, and flat on their backs, unable to stand up. The researchers also measured the amount of ethanol in the bees’ hemolymph, which is similar to blood in that it is the circulatory fluid of insects.

As ethanol consumption increased, bees spent less time flying, walking, and grooming and more time upside down. The appearance of inebriation occurred earlier in bees given a higher dose of ethanol. Furthermore, blood ethanol levels increased with time and ethanol consumption.

(Source: Science Daily)

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