New Study Shows How Bumblebees Use Electricity To Navigate

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Flowers use their color, shape, and scent to attract pollinators like bumblebees. Scientists have known for a long time that bees were able to sense the electric signals from flowers to navigate, but they didn’t know how the process works. Previously, they thought that bumblebees use their antennae that have a lot of sensors to detect the electric fields from flowers. But now researchers have found that the signals were not relayed any further by the antennae.

Flowers use electric fields to attract bumblebees

According to a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, it is the tiny hairs on a bumblebee’s body that help them find flowers. Biologists at the University of Bristol found that the fuzzy hairs sense unique electric signals emitted by a flower and use it to find the pollen. While the scent, color, and shape of flowers help attract pollinators, plants want the given pollinator to stick around. That’s why they send unique electric signals.

There are thousands of flowering plants out there, and it takes bumblebees some time and effort to figure out how to extract the nectar from a given flower. Once the bees have mastered one type of flower, they are reluctant to spend time and energy figuring out other flowers. The unique electric signals help a flower communicate its identity with pollinators to foster a relationship with the bees.

Other insects may also be sensitive to electric fields

Lead researcher Dr Gregory Sutton said the tiny hairs “dance in response to electric fields.” The hairs pick up static electricity and send signals through the nervous system of a bee. Sutton believes that since many other insects have similar body hairs, they too may be equally sensitive to small electric signals.

Bumblebees are positively charged while flowers are negatively charged. When they interact with each other, it causes a spark that comes through the fuzzy hairs of the bees. For the study, researchers used a laser to measure the vibrations caused by the spark.

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