A Honeybee Swarm Has as Much Electric Charge as a Thundercloud

A Honeybee Swarm Has as Much Electric Charge as a Thundercloud

Shayla Love: This is Scientific American‘s 60-Second Science. Shayla Love.

When you hear a bee buzzing, it’s likely that it is moving air through the fluttering wings. It turns out that bees buzz in more than one way.

Giles Harrison I first noticed this when I saw the bumblebee land on my electrode and I noticed a significant change in the measurement.

Love This is Giles Harrison ,, a professor of atmospheric Physics at the University of Reading in England. He’s co-author of a recent paper in iScience that measured the electric charge of swarms of bees and found that the insects can generate as much electricity as storm clouds.

Ellard Hunting We’ve known for a while that bees carry an electric charge.

Love: Ellard Hunting is a biologist at the University of Bristol in England, and he studies how different organisms use those electric fields in the environment. Negatively charged plants and pollen are more common than positive-charged bees.

Hunting When a bee visits a flower, the pollen attracts it electrostatically, so they stick better to the flower and transfer better.

Love Several honeybee hives are used for research at the University of Bristol’s field station. These bees can swarm and researchers were able direct measure them using an electronic field monitor.

Bees are able to electrically sense if a flower has been visited or not by another bee. It wasn’t known that living things could interact with other living things in the atmosphere.

A single bee’s charge can be very small. It takes many bees to produce enough electricity to make a difference.

Hunting Imagine you need a million of these to light up an LED.

Harrison 50 million bees are needed to get enough charge for a car to start.

Love But overall, because there are so many bugs in the atmosphere, they can have a huge effect.

This means that large groups of insects, such as bees, can alter the atmosphere electric fields around them. This could potentially impact weather events and cloud formation.

Insects don’t live in the atmosphere alone. The atmosphere is also home to microorganisms and birds, which carry the charge and take up space.

We knew electricity existed long before the bees were ever measured. These static electric fields can be found all over the Earth’s atmosphere. They can be affected by lightning, lighting, aerosols and pollution.

Atmospheric electricity is measured as something called the Vertical Potential Gradient or PG. This is the difference between the voltage at the surface of Earth, and any point in the atmosphere. The team found the swarms of bees could change the PG by 100 to 1,000 volts per meter.

They also modeled how atmospheric electricity might affect other insects such as desert locusts which can form swarms up to 460 miles. These swarms are dense enough to cram 40 million to 80 million of the insects into less than half a square mile. These swarms produce more electric charge than the ones reported for electrical storms, according to past measurements.

Not all insects pack this much electrical power. Because of their low density, moths or butterflies don’t seem like they have much impact on the modeling.

Climate models that consider complex interactions in the atmosphere don’t account for insects’ electric charges. They should be. The combined electric charge of all these insects could impact the development and formation of rain, snow, and droplet formation, and possibly even how clouds are formed.

Hunting We can only speculate that this might have an effect on cloud formation. If there is a direct connection between clouds and insects, then it is clear that clouds are important to climate.

Love Insect electricity could also influence how dust moves through the atmosphere. Atmospheric scientists are particularly interested in this because such dust can block sunlight and alter temperature distributions locally.

Harrison The link between dust and insects can be very interesting, because one of climate change’s key questions is “How do large particles move from Sahara?” We just thought about the physical aspects of transporting them from Sahara. What if they are stuck to a locust by being charged? This really changes the situation and we can think of it very differently.

Love Now that you know how sparkly these insects can be, it might be time to consider all the extra buzzing in the air.

For 60-Second Science, this is Shayla Love.

[ The transcript of this podcast is available in the text above. ]

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