Bees’ electrical fields form social networks

Bees use the electric fields that build up on their body to communicate without the need for mobile phones.

According to Randolf Menzel, a neurobiologist at the Free University of Berlin in Germany, as the bees fly, flutter their wings, or rub body parts together they generate a strong electric field.

These deflect the bees’ antennae, which provide signals to the brain through specialised organs at their bases.

While it has been known for a while that insects gain an electrical charge when they buzz, they did not realise that charge builds up.

The bee’s exoskeleton has a waxy surface that acts as an electrical insulator which means that the charge isn’t easily dissipated, even when the insect lands on objects. This helps pollen stick to insects visiting a flower.

It is thought that a flower that a bee had recently landed on might have an altered electrical field, so the bee ignores it.

According to Science Now, Menzel and colleagues have studied how honey bees respond to electrical fields.

The boffins found that a small, electrically charged wand brought close to a honey bee can cause its antennae to bend. Other tests, using antennae removed from honey bees, indicated that electrically induced deflections triggered reactions in a group of sensory cells, called the Johnston’s organ, located near the base of the antennae.

In less nasty experiments bees learned that a sugary reward was available when they detected a particular pattern of electrical field.

The tests suggest that the electrical fields that build up on bees due to their flight or movement are stimuli that could be used in social communication.