Researcher: Bees could help find treatments for alcoholism

Wednesday, September 20th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

STILLWATER, Okla. (AP) -- Honey bees and humans may have something in common when it comes to knocking down too many cold ones.

Bees and people alike drink alcohol. That and other not-so-apparent similarities have influenced an Oklahoma State University researcher to examine whether bees can be used to test drugs designed to curb alcoholism.

Research could determine within a few months if bees prove to be suitable subjects that would allow drug companies to use fewer vertebrates in the first line of drug testing, said Charles I. Abramson, a comparative psychologist.

Some animals have to be injected or tricked into consuming alcohol, but bees readily imbibe the way parched people do. 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," 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 and help them quit.

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 divisions 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. The ants would toss a drunken stranger 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.

Injecting alcohol into bee larva cells might aid with research in how alcohol affects the developing organism, Abramson said.

Abramson began bee research with Italo Aquino of Brazil. The two have examined how insecticides affect learning in the Africanized honey bee. The bee is crucial to some crop pollination, but pollenating plants is a learned behavior that can be thwarted by some insecticides, he said.

Abramson first thought of using bees in alcohol research about four years ago after he and others noticed bees feeding on fermenting fruit and wine bottles.

He said he could know by November whether the bees would make adequate test subjects for drug companies. If his experiments fail to yield a new research method, Abramson said he would have at least learned more about the insects.

His preliminary findings on bees and alcohol consumption were published last month in the journal "Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research."

The group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA, believes tests on bees are cruel.

"To us it's the same old garbage, different species. These bees are undoubtedly being harmed in this experience," said Mary Beth Sweetland, director of research and investigations for the animal rights group in Northfolk, Va.

Bees are likely distressed by being harnessed for the experiments, she said, and questioned what good could come of the research. Other animals forage on fermenting fruit and Antabuse is an old drug, Sweetland said.

"When you think about all the alcoholics and drug addicts who can't get treatment when you see the money dedicated to things like this it makes you angry," she said.

Abramson said objecting to bee research could put animal rights group into the position of defending cock roaches and other insects. He has not sought drug company funding yet because he must first prove the applicability to humans.

But Abramson said he hopes a drug company is interest in his experiment.