Swarming insects can “produce as much electricity as storm clouds”

Bees have a closer relationship with electricity than previously recognized (Ellard Hunting)

Groundbreaking new research has found that swarming insects could produce the same atmospheric electrical charge as a thundercloud, possibly influencing weather events and demonstrating a little recognized link between organisms and electricity.

A research team from the University of Bristol said insects can use their ability to interact with static electric fields to their advantage, helping species such as bees find food and allowing spiders to migrate considerable distances.

The research team measured electric fields near honey bees and found that swarms change atmospheric electricity by 100 to 1,000 volts per meter, increasing the electric field strength normally experienced at ground level, a similar change in charge. atmospheric electrical power of a thundercloud.

“We always looked at how physics affected biology, but at some point we realized that biology could also affect physics,” said lead author Dr Ellard Hunting, a biologist at the University of Bristol.

“We are interested in how different organisms use static electric fields that are practically everywhere in the environment.”

She said The independent that the static electric field “changes for a while if a bee has visited a flower.

“The next visiting bee might [detect] this and associate it with flowers that have little or no nectar present and help in their decision making process. “

Elsewhere, the silk threads of spiders contain a particular charge, which can respond to static electric fields and allow the spiders to soar into the sky, thus migrating long distances.

The team then built a model that worked out the changes to static electric fields for different insect species.

“How insect swarms affect atmospheric electricity depends on their density and size,” said co-author Liam O’Reilly, a biologist at the University of Bristol.

“We also calculated the influence of locusts on atmospheric electricity, as locusts swarm on a biblical scale, measuring 460 square miles with 80 million locusts in less than a square mile.

“Their influence is probably much greater than honey bees,” he said.

Asked whether insects could have a feasible impact on weather through the way they interact with electric fields, Dr Hunting said, “A weather radar is affected by insects, charged or not. We don’t really know how it affects the weather.

“It really depends on what weather phenomena. For example, insects probably won’t affect major weather events like thunderstorms, but they could very well affect the dynamics of local ions and aerosols, or perhaps affect clouds in otherwise clean areas.

“But it could be a butterfly effect, we don’t know, and that makes exploring the role of insects in the great atmospheric system worth investigating.”

A key element of the research was how the research team approached a phenomenon that spans the gap between two branches of science: physics and biology.

“Interdisciplinarity is invaluable here,” said co-author Giles Harrison, atmospheric physicist at the University of Reading.

“Electric charge may appear to live exclusively in physics, but it is important to know how aware the entire natural world is of electricity in the atmosphere.”

Dr Hunting added: ‘Only recently have we discovered that biology and static electric fields are intimately linked and that there are many unsuspected links that can exist on different spatial scales, ranging from microbes in soil and plant-pollinator interactions to swarms of insects and the planet’s electrical circuit.

“This makes it an exciting new area of ​​empirical research. The true implications of this remain speculative and it is worth investigating whether these insect-induced dynamics affect time.”

The research is published in the journal iScience.

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