Bees use 'electrical sixth sense' to nail nectar-stuffed flowers

Sparks fly when bumbles see plants for plundering, say Brit bio-boffins


There's electricity in the air when bees meet flowers: according to a new study, the blooms and approaching insects uses electrical signals to find out whether there is nectar and pollen to spare.

A bee covered with pollen on a flower

My spidey bumble senses are tingling

As they fly through the air, bumblebees acquire a positive electric charge, while flowers, which are grounded, have a negative charge. When the two meet, the bee somehow senses the difference, and it's that information - along with bright colours, patterns and enticing fragrance - that attracts pollinators to blooms.

Bio-boffins at the University of Bristol, which conducted the study, found that when a bee visits a flower and picks up its pollen, some of the positive charge on the insect may transfer to the plant and alter its electric charge. After several visits, this change in charge appears to be detected by other incoming bees who swerve away in search of a plant that hasn't been plundered.

But both the bee and the plant have a bit of control over their charge, we're told, and some plants may lie about their nectar supply.

“The last thing a flower wants is to attract a bee and then fail to provide nectar: a lesson in honest advertising since bees are good learners and would soon lose interest in such an unrewarding flower," lead author Daniel Robert said.

"The co-evolution between flowers and bees has a long and beneficial history, so perhaps it's not entirely surprising that we are still discovering today how remarkably sophisticated their communication is."

The researchers tested the electric chat by placing electrodes in the stems of petunias and observing that, when a bumblebee (Bombus terrestris) lands, the flower's potential changes and stays that way for a few minutes. They also found that the bees are able to detect and distinguish between different flowers' electric fields.

What they don't yet know is how the bees detect the fields with this sixth sense, although it's possible that bumblebee hairs bristle up under the electrostatic force.

The full study, Detection and Learning of Floral Electric Fields by Bumblebees, was published in Science Express. ®


Other stories you might like

  • Venezuelan cardiologist charged with designing and selling ransomware
    If his surgery was as bad as his opsec, this chap has caused a lot of trouble

    The US Attorney’s Office has charged a 55-year-old cardiologist with creating and selling ransomware and profiting from revenue-share agreements with criminals who deployed his product.

    A complaint [PDF] filed on May 16th in the US District Court, Eastern District of New York, alleges that Moises Luis Zagala Gonzalez – aka “Nosophoros,” “Aesculapius” and “Nebuchadnezzar” – created a ransomware builder known as “Thanos”, and ransomware named “Jigsaw v. 2”.

    The self-taught coder and qualified cardiologist advertised the ransomware in dark corners of the web, then licensed it ransomware to crooks for either $500 or $800 a month. He also ran an affiliate network that offered the chance to run Thanos to build custom ransomware, in return for a share of profits.

    Continue reading
  • China reveals its top five sources of online fraud
    'Brushing' tops the list, as quantity of forbidden content continue to rise

    China’s Ministry of Public Security has revealed the five most prevalent types of fraud perpetrated online or by phone.

    The e-commerce scam known as “brushing” topped the list and accounted for around a third of all internet fraud activity in China. Brushing sees victims lured into making payment for goods that may not be delivered, or are only delivered after buyers are asked to perform several other online tasks that may include downloading dodgy apps and/or establishing e-commerce profiles. Victims can find themselves being asked to pay more than the original price for goods, or denied promised rebates.

    Brushing has also seen e-commerce providers send victims small items they never ordered, using profiles victims did not create or control. Dodgy vendors use that tactic to then write themselves glowing product reviews that increase their visibility on marketplace platforms.

    Continue reading
  • Oracle really does owe HPE $3b after Supreme Court snub
    Appeal petition as doomed as the Itanic chips at the heart of decade-long drama

    The US Supreme Court on Monday declined to hear Oracle's appeal to overturn a ruling ordering the IT giant to pay $3 billion in damages for violating a decades-old contract agreement.

    In June 2011, back when HPE had not yet split from HP, the biz sued Oracle for refusing to add Itanium support to its database software. HP alleged Big Red had violated a contract agreement by not doing so, though Oracle claimed it explicitly refused requests to support Intel's Itanium processors at the time.

    A lengthy legal battle ensued. Oracle was ordered to cough up $3 billion in damages in a jury trial, and appealed the decision all the way to the highest judges in America. Now, the Supreme Court has declined its petition.

    Continue reading

Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2022