Swarming bees produce so much electricity they can affect local weather, new research has found.
The discovery, which the researchers made by measuring the electric fields around bees (apis mellifera) beehives, reveals that bees can produce as much atmospheric electricity as a thunderstorm. This can play an important role in directing dust to shape unpredictable weather; and their impact may even need to be included in future climate models.
The tiny bodies of insects can pick up a positive charge as they feed, either by the friction of air molecules against their rapidly beating wings (bees can beat their wings more than 230 times per second) or by landing on electrically charged surfaces. But the effects of these tiny charges were previously thought to be small-scale. Now, a new study, published October 24 in the iScience journalshows that insects can generate a shocking amount of electricity.
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“We have only recently discovered that biology and static electric fields are intimately linked and that there are many unsuspected links that can exist at different spatial scales, ranging from microbes in the soil and plant-pollinator interactions to swarms. of insects and to the world electrical circuit.” first author Beast huntingbiologist at the University of Bristol, told Live Science.
Static electricity emerges when microscopic bumps and depressions on two surfaces rub against each other, causing friction. This causes electrons, which are negatively charged, to jump from one surface to another, leaving one surface positively charged while the other surface becomes negatively charged. Transfer across the two ionized surfaces establishes a voltage difference, or potential gradient, across which charges can jump.
This electrostatic potential gradient – which can give you a shock when you touch a doorknob after walking through a carpet – can also charge lightning through the friction of ice clusters inside clouds; legend has it that this phenomenon was demonstrated by Benjamin Franklin when he and his son flew a kite during a thunderstorm, noting that the kite’s wet string was leading sparks from the storm cloud to a key attached to its end.
Electrostatic effects emerge in the world of insects; they allow bees to attract pollen to them and help spiders weave negatively charged webs that attract and trap the positively charged bodies of their prey.
To test whether bees produce significant changes in the electric field of our atmosphere, the researchers placed an electric field monitor and camera near the site of several bee colonies. During the 3 minutes the insects swarmed the air, the researchers found that the potential gradient above the hives increased to 100 volts per meter. In other swarming events, scientists have measured the effect at up to 1,000 volts per meter, making the charge density of a large swarm of bees about six times greater than that of dust storms. electrified and eight times greater than that of a storm cloud.
The scientists also discovered that denser clouds of insects meant greater electric fields – an observation that allowed them to model other swarming insects such as locusts and butterflies.
Locusts often swarm on “Biblical scales”, scientists said, creating thick clouds 460 square miles (1,191 square kilometers) and packing up to 80 million locusts into less than half a square mile (1.3 square km). The researchers’ model predicted that the effect of swarming locusts on the atmospheric electric field was staggering, generating electric charge densities similar to those produced by thunderstorms.
The researchers say insects are unlikely to produce storms themselves, but even when potential gradients don’t meet the conditions to produce lightning, they can still have other effects on the weather. Electric fields in the atmosphere can ionize dust and pollutant particles, altering their motion in unpredictable ways. Because dust can scatter sunlight, knowing how it moves and where it settles is important to understanding a region’s climate.
“Interdisciplinarity is valuable here – electric charge may seem to live only in physics, but it’s important to know how aware the whole natural world is of electricity in the atmosphere,” Hunting said. “Thinking more broadly, linking biology and physics could help solve many puzzling questions, such as why large dust particles are found so far from the Sahara.”
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