The finding, which researchers made by measuring the electrical fields around honeybee (apis mellifera) hives, reveals that bees can produce as much atmospheric electricity as a thunderstorm. This can play an important role in steering dust to shape unpredictable weather patterns; and their impact may even need to be included in future climate models.
Insects’ tiny bodies can pick up positive charge while they forage — either from the friction of air molecules against their rapidly beating wings (honeybees can flap their wings more than 230 times a second) or from landing onto electrically charged surfaces. But the effects of these tiny charges were previously assumed to be on a small scale. Now, a new study, published Oct. 24 in the journal iScience, shows that insects can generate a shocking amount of electricity.
To test whether honeybees produce sizable changes in the electric field of our atmosphere, the researchers placed an electric field monitor and a camera near the site of several honeybee colonies. In the 3 minutes that the insects flooded into the air, the researchers found that the potential gradient above the hives increased to 100 volts per meter. In other swarming events, the scientists measured the effect as high as 1,000 volts per meter, making the charge density of a large honeybee swarm roughly six times greater than electrified dust storms and eight times greater than a stormcloud.
The scientists also found that denser insect clouds meant bigger electrical fields — an observation that enabled them to model other swarming insects such as locusts and butterflies.
Locusts often swarm to “biblical scales,” the scientists said, creating thick clouds 460 square miles (1,191 square kilometers) in size and packing up to 80 million locusts into less than half a square mile (1.3 square km). The researchers’ model predicted that swarming locusts’ effect on the atmospheric electric field was staggering, generating densities of electric charge similar to those made by thunderstorms.
The researchers say it’s unlikely the insects are producing storms themselves, but even when potential gradients don’t meet the conditions to make lightning, they can still have other effects on the weather. Electric fields in the atmosphere can ionize particles of dust and pollutants, changing their movement in unpredictable ways. As dust can scatter sunlight, knowing how it moves and where it settles is important to understanding a region’s climate.
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