UI professor investigates cocaine’s effect on insect

Giving bees a buzz just got a whole new meaning.

Gene Robinson, professor of entomology at the University, was briefly alluded to on the Colbert Report in mid-February in a segment that highlighted his research on the effects of cocaine on honey bees.

“Now we know where all those missing honey bees have gone,” Colbert Report host Stephen Colbert said. “They’re in the bathroom doing a bump.”

While Robinson was not mentioned by name, the segment involved Colbert simulating the effects of cocaine while eating honey and talking about the project.

“We knew when this story went out that we were going to get some ripping for it,” said Andy Barron, professor at the Australian National University in Sydney, Australia, who worked with Robinson on the project.

The research itself had been in development for several years before the show’s airing, he added.

Barron said initial planning took place for five years before primary research occurred from 2006 to 2008.

The bees were chosen because of the presence of a symbolic communication system similar to humans, he added.

“They ‘tell’ hive mates about good food sources based on distance, direction and quality through a series of coded movements and sounds,” Robinson said.

The system, called “dancing,” parallels reward responses in humans, as in when a person tells friends if whether a restaurant they discovered was good or bad, he added.

“We use cocaine to explain the chemical systems of the bee brain,” Barron said. “That really encapsulates the project.”

Barron said the research team wanted to see if bees would respond in the same way as humans, given exposure to cocaine.

“We know cocaine is rewarding to humans,” Barron said. “On cocaine, we think things are better than they really are.” The cocaine was distributed in very small doses of three micrograms – which is about three one millionths of a gram, he added.

“It was very focused and non-toxic to the bees,” Barron said. “We did not damage the hive.”

Once exposed to cocaine, the bees experienced a very significant response that paralleled cocaine responses in humans, Robinson said.

“They overestimated how good the honey was,” Barron said.

Despite its unique feel, this is not the only experiment to involve the distribution of cocaine to animals.

Joshua Gulley, assistant professor of psychology at the University, said he is studying the effects of repeated exposure to cocaine and amphetamines on brain behavior using rats.

“We study rats because their physiology shares a lot of the same physiology with humans,” Gulley said. “It helps us understand how outside things like cocaine can change us long term.”

Gulley said he had heard of Colbert’s segment on the bee and cocaine experiment.

“It’s a provocative sounding experiment,” Gulley said.

Robinson said he found the segment respectful of the research.

“It poked some fun at it, but by demonstrating some of the problems associated with addiction it also showed that there was a problem that needed to be addressed,” Robinson said.

Just being mentioned on a high profile show like the Colbert Report was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, Barron said.

“That’s really, really cool,” he said. “I thought it was funny.”