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Swarming bees can stir up electric fields more powerful than thunderstorms, reveals study

A team of researchers from the University of Bristol found that the bee swarms created an electric charge ranging from 100 to 1000 volts per meter.

Swarming bees can stir up electric fields more powerful than thunderstorms, reveals study
Cover Image Source: GettyImages/Photo by: Caroline Armitage

Without a doubt, swarming bees are an incredible sight to behold. They seem to be in constant motion, swirling around in a mesmerizing pattern, described as a “living tornado.” But what may be even more impressive than their movements is these bees are creating their electric fields by swirling like a tornado. The electric field created by an entire swarm of active western honey bees is considerably more powerful than previously thought, with measurements showing it to be more dynamic than that of thunderstorms.

According to NewScientist, researchers at the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom recently made an incredible discovery. As per their research swarming honeybees can produce greater electric charges than even thunderstorm clouds create. Ellard Hunting and his team were tracking weather at a field station near their university when they noticed their electric field monitors recorded a jump in atmospheric electric charge despite no storm activity. They then realized that at the same time, nearby western honeybees (Apis mellifera) were swarming.

GettyImage/Photo by: BRENDA SNAPE
GettyImage/Photo by: BRENDA SNAPE

 

To measure the electric field and swarm density, the team deployed additional electric field monitors and video cameras and waited for the bees to swarm naturally. The researchers recorded three swarms passing the monitors for around 3 minutes at a time and found that the bee swarms created an electric charge ranging from 100 to 1000 volts per meter. Analysis of the proximity of bees to each other revealed that the denser the swarm, the stronger the electric field was.

Hunting compared the bees’ highest charge to data from meteorological events like fair-weather storm clouds, thunderstorms and electrified dust storms and found that the bee swarms had a charge density eight times as great as a thunderstorm cloud and six times as great as an electrified dust storm. “When I looked at the data, I was kind of surprised to see that it had a massive effect,” says Hunting. Though, it’s unclear whether this ability is useful for the bees or merely an accidental product of friction between their wings and the air.

Image Source: Getty Images/Photo By: 	William Jones-Warner
Image Source: Getty Images/Photo By: William Jones-Warner

 

Victor Manuel Ortega-Jiménez at the University of Maine wonders if the same phenomenon is happening with other flying, swarming animals like birds and bats. If it is, it could potentially be used in a variety of applications like weather prediction, navigation and communication. This groundbreaking discovery may open the door to further understanding the electric fields of swarming animals and the potential uses of this phenomenon. “These are all interesting questions that this paper opens to investigate,” he says.

The researchers reported this week in iScience that the charge density of a thunderstorm is comparable to what the bees generate. The team is uncertain if the bees gain any advantage from producing this electric field, though some suppose it could be useful for them while finding food.

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