Bees find flowers as static electricity zaps small hairs on their body, study finds

Researchers knew that bees use electricity from flowers to navigate – but now how that worked

A pollen-covered bumblebee sits on a flower in northern France
A pollen-covered bumblebee sits on a flower in northern France

Bees have tiny vibrating hairs that let them find flowers, a new study has shown.

The small hairs are used to sense electric fields coming out of flowers and then use them to find sources of pollen, according to the new research.

Even more animals might use the same static electricity-finding hairs to navigate around, according to the University of Bristol researchers behind the study.

Researchers already knew that bumblebees were able to sense and act on electrical signals from flowers. But they haven’t known how that process works – until now.

The new study shows that the hairs are able to pick up static electricity and then send messages through the nervous system.

Lead researcher Dr Gregory Sutton, from the University of Bristol's School of Biological Sciences, said: "We were excited to discover that bees' tiny hairs dance in response to electric fields, like when humans hold a balloon to their hair.

"A lot of insects have similar body hairs, which leads to the possibility that many members of the insect world may be equally sensitive to small electric fields."

Many of the most beautiful and attractive parts of flowers are mechanisms for attracting pollinators like bees. Their bright colours and smells help them catch the attention of insects.

But the research shows the ways that flowers also are able to use static electricity to tap straight into the bees’ nervous systems.

Since the flowers are negatively charged, and the bees are positively charged, the two interact with one another and cause a spark that comes through the bees’ hairs.

In the research, the scientist used a laser to measure the vibrations that spark caused. They published their work in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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