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Fuzzy Little Bumblebees Can Sense Weak Electric Fields From Flowers

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Bumblebees are literally "buzzing with excitement" around flowers.

While the wings of these tiny creatures flap to produce their prominent humming sound, this kind of buzzing is an entirely different one.

New research conducted by a team of scientists from Bristol University suggests that fuzzy little bumblebees can actually sense electric fields from flowers, albeit the fields are very weak.

What are these electric fields for? Scientists say bumblebees detect electric fields in order to better recognize particular flowers during pollination. It's an incredible method of communication.

Bee My Love

Gregory Sutton, a fellow at Bristol University and the study's lead author, says that during the beginning of the research, his question was "very naïve."

"Why do flowers look so different to one another?" Sutton tells The Christian Science Monitor.

He says flowers would surely unite toward that one scent, shape and color that is attractive to pollinators.

However, Sutton also debunked this idea. He says flowers don't aim just to attract a certain pollinator; they want a "monogamous" relationship.

To foster this relationship, it's vital that flowers communicate their identity to the bee. Some of the methods include using attractive colors, shape and scent, as well as patterns visible in ultraviolet light. Another method is by using electric fields.

How Bumblebees Perceive Electric Fields

Bumblebees appear fuzzy as their bodies are covered in tiny hairs, which provide insulation and help the insects carry pollen.

Now, the new study investigated how exactly bees and flowers communicate through electric fields.

Scientists first placed 30 volts in artificial flowers. They also used a precise laser vibrometer that allowed them to measure the movements of antennae and hair in bumblebees.

Sutton and his team then filled the artificial flowers with sugar water, while another set of flowers was filled with bitter liquid. Sutton said the bumblebees would eventually learn to go to the flowers charged with 30 volts.

Researchers found that the unique electrical signatures emitted by the artificial flowers can be detected by the fuzzy blanket of hair that covers the insect's body. As the voltage was turned off, the bumblebees lost their ability to differentiate between flowers and started to forage randomly.

While both the hair and the antennae of the bumblebee deflected in response to the electric fields from the artificial flower, it was the hair that moved with greater speed and intensity. 

The movements of the hair also prompted a neural activity, while there was no neural response when the antennae moved. The electro receptive mechanism measures the weak forces at a distance of about 10 centimeters (3.9 inches) away, researchers say.

Implications

Because light, bristly hair often covers many creatures, scientists believe the electro receptive ability may be ubiquitous.

"I think this might be something we see in more insects than just bumblebees," says Sutton.

Sutton says this sense may possibly be used by other insects to detect predators or prey. He says one example is spiders: they are covered in extremely sensitive sensory hairs.

The details of the new study are published in the journal PNAS.

Photo: Timo Tervo | Flickr

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