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Bees Could Help in Alcoholism Fight

September 20, 2000

STILLWATER, Okla. (AP) _ Honey bees and humans have at least one thing in common: They both drink alcohol, and researchers want to know whether the insects can be used to test drugs designed to curb alcoholism.

Some animals have to be injected or tricked into consuming alcohol, but not bees. In studies, honey bees harnessed on a small metal holder consumed solutions with various levels of ethanol.

``We can even get them to drink pure ethanol, and I know of no organism that drinks pure ethanol, not even a college student,″ said Charles Abramson, a comparative psychologist at Oklahoma State University.

Research could determine within a few months whether bees are suitable subjects that would allow drug companies to use fewer vertebrates in the first line of drug testing, Abramson said.

Abramson, assistant Gina Fellows from the University of Hertfordshire in England and other students have begun giving bees the drug Antabuse, which makes alcoholics sick when they drink in order to curb consumption.

The drug is administered gradually to bees, allowing them to stop.

``It looks like it does have an affect on the bees,″ Abramson said.

Tests have been limited to the lab, but the team has begun conducting experiments in a more natural setting, with bees living in a hive atop a university building. The bees are trained to come down to a third-floor window to drink and are marked for observation before buzzing away.

Bees and people are more alike than meets the eye.

Bees have a complex social structure, including language and division of labor, that could make them similar to people in the way they treat their problem drinkers.

The likeness might allow researchers to come up with more ways to treat alcoholism, Abramson said.

He said naturalist John Lubbock found in experiments in 1888 that ants puzzled by the drunken behavior of a nest mate would nonetheless pick up the sot and carry it home. A drunken stranger ant would be tossed in a ditch.

So far, tests have shown that alcohol impairs bee locomotion and learning ability, just as it does in people. Overconsumption of ethanol kills bees just as overconsumption of alcohol can kill humans.

Abramson has collaborated on research into the effects of insecticides on learning in the Africanized honey bee. He published preliminary findings on bees and alcohol consumption last month in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research.

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