A discovery by researchers at Bristol University (UK). Insects produce tiny electrostatic charges which, in large swarms, create a collective electric field that is much stronger than previously thought.
Bees, insects that are essential to life itself on Earth, are indispensable pollinators and vital elements in the ecosystem. Their numbers are in drastic decline worldwide (for reasons that are not yet fully understood) and they never cease to amaze us.
Two recently published studies reveal very different but equally fascinating aspects of bees.
The first, published in the journal iScience, reveals that when bees fly, tiny hairs on their bodies vibrate, accumulating a small electrostatic charge. So if there are large groups of bees (for example, in a beehive), they can create electrically charged surfaces that produce a collective electric field much larger than scientists had previously thought – the same in some cases as when there are atmospheric events of significant magnitude, like thunderstorms. Experts believe that these clouds of electricity can influence the climate of the area where the large swarms are located.
It is worth remembering that the atmosphere is always charged with electricity that comes from the widest range of sources, like groups of water droplets or particles of dust. However, the contribution that living beings - so-called biotic sources like birds and microorganisms in the air – make to this phenomenon has not been as widely studied.
Researchers at Bristol University measured the field of electricity produced by swarms of bees using electric field detectors and mathematical and physical estimates. The scientists found that these clouds of insects can produce 100 - 1000 volts per square metre, depending on the size of the swarm and the hives.
Electrical fields created by insects: the 'power' of locusts
Electrical fields created by other insects can also be calculated in a similar way. For example, locusts change colour and behaviour when they swarm, and can reach very high densities (on average, 80 million in around 2.6 square kilometres) and can create much more intense electric fields than those produced by bees.
The other key players in creating atmospheric electricity discovered in recent years are microorganisms in the soil and the interaction between pollinators and plants, proving that nothing is isolated and everything is interdependent in order to achieve equilibrium for the planet.
The second study on bees regards a previously little-studied feature: their ability to play. According to researchers at Queen Mary University in London, there are indications that bees, like much larger animals (mammals, birds and others), enjoy playful activity, i.e. something not related to the search for food or other strategies for survival.
The authors of the study, published in the scientific journal Animal Behaviour, which is a continuation of experiments that began in 2017, are certain of this. In the initial stage, researchers had already seen that when they put insects together with wooden balls in various colours, bees played when there was a reward, but continued to play even when the reward was no longer available: something that gave the researchers considerable food for thought.
This was observed again with bumblebees and shown in a video that is part of the publication. One of the explanations is that play probably reinforces motor activities and coordination between nerve ganglia and legs, and stimulates curiosity: in other words, intelligence.