Flowers get an electrifying buzz out of visiting bees

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Plants could turn out to be one of the more chatty organisms. Recent studies have shown they can communicate with a surprising range of cues. Now it turns out they could be sending out electrical signals, too.

As they fly through the air, bees – like all insects – acquire a positive electric charge. Flowers, on the other hand, are grounded and so have a negative charge. Daniel Robert at the University of Bristol, UK, and colleagues set out to investigate whether bumblebees (Bombus terrestris) were able to make use of these signals.

To test the idea, the team created artificial flowers, filling some with sucrose and others with quinine, a substance bees don’t feed on. To start with, the bees visited these flowers at random. But when a 30 volt field – typical for a 30-centimetre-tall flower – was applied to the artificial blooms containing sucrose, the team found that the bees could detect the field from a few centimetres away and visited the charged flowers 81 per cent of the time. The bees reverted to random behaviour when the electricity was switched off.

“That was the first hint that had us jumping up and down in the lab,” says Robert. The result suggests the bees may use the electric field as an indicator of the presence of food, much like colour and scent do. In the absence of a charge, they forage at random.

Next, his team looked at whether the bees were influenced by the shape of a flower’s electric field, which is determined by the flower’s shape. By varying the shape of the field around artificial flowers that had the same charge, they showed that bees preferentially visited flowers with fields in concentric rings like a bullseye: these were visited 70 per cent of the time compared to only 30 per cent for flowers with a solid circular field.

Written By: Douglas Heaven
continue to source article at newscientist.com

8 COMMENTS

  1. This shows that bees can detect an electric field, but it does not mean that they actually use that ability in the wild. I think that such speculation is no more than that, until there is evidence from a more natural situation.

  2. In reply to #2 by Eamonn Shute:

    This shows that bees can detect an electric field, but it does not mean that they actually use that ability in the wild. I think that such speculation is no more than that, until there is evidence from a more natural situation.

    From Ed Yong’s article: “Now, Robert’s team is going to take their experiment from lab to field to see just how electrically sensitive wild bees can be, and how their senses change according to weather. “We are probably only seeing the tip of the electric ice burg here”, he says.”

  3. This is awesome stuff! I am currently in a chemistry workshop learning about ionization energy and electrons. I shared this story with the other teachers and we had scientific thoughts and conversation. There are Physicists, Chemists, and Biologists in the room and nearly everyone was jazzed.

    It is truly across the disciplines and all have input and applications to the topic. I love it!

  4. Plants could turn out to be one of the more chatty organisms. Recent studies have shown they can communicate with a surprising range of cues.

    Could this mean that His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales is right about homeopathy, too?

  5. However, Chittka points out that we cannot yet say with certainty that the bees’ ability to detect an electric charge is a true sixth sense. It may be that when a bee hovers over a flower it simply feels the static charge making its hairs bend, in the same way that hairs on our arm bend towards a charged balloon.

    That was the first thing I thought of when they said the tests were with the very hairy bumble bees. I think there should be tests with hairless insects or honey bees to see if there is a similar effect or not.

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