One cannot understate the importance of bees. Image: Martin LaBar via Flickr CC.

It’s hard to understate the importance of bees. Agriculture is and always has been economic bedrock, and without the pollinating power of bees it would collapse: the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization estimated that the worth of global crops pollinated by honeybees was approximately $200 billion in 2005.

Any threat to bees is worth sitting up and paying attention to, and one such suspect is a familiar villain to humanity as well: nicotine. Tobacco, despite its increasingly vilified position in global discussion, is unlikely to vanish overnight: the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stated that almost 264 billion cigarettes were sold in the USA alone in 2014. And yet, the exact relationship between bees and this infamous chemical is murky. There seem to be three close but distinct considerations: nicotine, neonicotinoids, and nectar.

Nicotine and neonicotinoids are similar but different chemicals. Nicotine has a history not just as the addictive element in tobacco, but as a very successful insecticide. Taken in this form, however, its toxicity proved too hazardous for mammalian exposure as well, and became widely banned. A fairly recent invention aimed to separate the wheat from the chaff, as it were: neonicotinoids, a chemical that functions in the same manner as nicotine pesticides while being toxic only to insects. Widely hailed as the perfect mix of pest control and safe agriculture, neonicotinoids are coming under greater scrutiny for catching bees in the crossfire.

Contrast this with the parasite-fighting clout of nicotine nectar. A joint study from the University of Massachusetts and Dartmouth College found that bees which consumed nicotine and certain other toxins naturally found in plant nectar had a lower rate of infection from intestinal parasites. The bees may even have an instinctive relationship with the chemical; a separate study by the University of Haifa in Israel found that the insects were lured to nectar containing nicotine or caffeine, but only if the chemical levels were not adjusted to be higher than those found in nature.

The takeaway may be that while isolating nicotine or replicating its effects with neonicotinoids won’t do bees any favors, planting a few tobacco trees around a farm just might.