October 26, 2022 | David F. Coppedge

Bee Surprised

Insects influence the climate like thunderstorms?
What else will scientists discover—or claim to discover?

 

This week’s believe-it-or-not claim in the science news world is that bees are like thunderstorms. They may not look like thunderstorms, but they carry as much or more electrical charge as thunderclouds—at least when they swarm. Let’s evaluate this claim.

Insects contribute to atmospheric electricity (Science Daily, 24 Oct 2022). This press release comes from Cell Press, which published the paper.

By measuring the electrical fields near swarming honeybees, researchers have discovered that insects can produce as much atmospheric electric charge as a thunderstorm cloud. This type of electricity helps shape weather events, aids insects in finding food, and lifts spiders up in the air to migrate over large distances. The research, appearing on October 24 in the journal iScience, demonstrates that living things can have an impact on atmospheric electricity.

DFC

Swarming bees may potentially change the weather, new study suggests (Live Science, 24 Oct 2022). With its higher propensity for clickbait, Live Science goes for the astonishment factor.

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.

Some Honey Bee Swarms Generate Electrical Charges Stronger Than Storms (The Scientist, 24 Oct 2022). Et tu, The-Scientist.com? From a few seconds of data by a field monitor under a swarm of bees, can science really proclaim that bees have that much influence on weather? What about locust swarms, too?

The researchers also used their findings to build a model for the electrical charges produced by other swarming insects such as locusts, whose aggregations can be massive. “[T]heir influence is likely much greater than honeybees,” coauthor Liam O’Reilly of the University of Bristol says in a press release.

“We always looked at how physics influenced biology,” Hunting says in the statement, “but at some point, we realized that biology might also be influencing physics.

Honeybee swarms generate more electricity per metre than a storm cloud (New Scientist, 24 Oct 2022). Another clickbait generator, New Scientist adds some storytelling emotion by quoting lead author Ellard Hunting from the University of Bristol:

“When I looked at the data, I was kind of surprised to see that it had a massive effect,” says Hunting. It was already known that individual bees carry a small charge, but a voltage of this magnitude had never been documented in swarming honeybees before.

Here is the scientific paper that came out with the popular articles:

Hunting et al., Observed electric charge of insect swarms and their contribution to atmospheric electricity. iScience (Cell Press), 24 Oct 2022 (open access).

  • The first highlight is uncontroversial: “Aerial insects carry an electric charge.” Bee hairs, like human hairs, can hold electric charges. The charges between a honeybee and flower, furthermore, can influence the ways the insects find nectar and navigate to it.
  • The second highlight, “Swarming honeybees have a density-dependent effect on atmospheric electricity,” gets a little more puzzling, depending on how one defines the atmosphere. Even the densest locust swarms are tiny compared to the height of the atmosphere; how much less a bee swarm in a tree?
  • The third highlight seems the most controversial: “Insects can have similar effects on atmospheric electricity as weather events.” How could that be proved?

The 7 authors tell how they measured the voltage (potential gradient, PG) of bee swarms as a function of density, and compared the readings with control air spaces free of insects. It would be helpful to see another research team corroborate the readings, because a PG of 1,000 volts per meter seems high enough to have generated lightning-like discharges between bees in a swarm or in a locust plague. Since those have not been evident before now, the claim should be considered provisional.

Animals Cause Climate Change?

The authors do not propose any function for the insects’ electrical influences on the atmosphere, other than to suggest that bees and other animals might transfer electrical charge to dust particles. The static charge might affect clumping and mass of the dust particles as aggregates, influencing their transport by winds and ability to act as condensation seeds for precipitation.

But is it enough to influence the weather like thunderclouds can? The team recognizes some limitations of the study:

The presented evidence that swarming, migrating insects transport charge in the lower atmosphere indicates that large collections of charged insects will contribute to a hitherto unrecognized source of electrical variability in the atmosphere. This recognition potentially carries various physically- and biologically relevant implications. For instance, entomogenic space charge is not considered in current climate models aimed at capturing the complex interplay between radiation and particulate matter, such as the atmospheric transport of dust. As atmospheric space charge enhances the aggregation and movement of aerial particles, it is conceivable that insect-derived space charges will also contribute to spatial changes in aerial particles. For example, it could be speculated that insect-driven charged particle collection and transport could contribute to long-range transport of desert dust, providing alternative explanations for the transport of large particles, which cannot be explained by physical processes alone. Further, insects are not the only source of biogenic charge in the atmosphere, as birds and microorganisms also carry charge and abound in the lower atmosphere. The observed presence and magnitude of biogenic space charge invites further interdisciplinary research into the dynamic electrical interactions between physical and biological entities in the atmosphere. [Internal references omitted.]

None of the articles discussed how bees or animals evolved the ability to carry charge and (possibly) influence the weather. Only the article in The Scientist offered an explanation for advantages that static charge might offer foraging bees:

The function of the electrical charges generated by bees and bee swarms is unknown, though some research suggests that certain species can detect weak electric fields with mechanosensory hairs that cover the insects’ bodies. This could mean that bees make use of electrical information to forage, the University of Maine’s Victor Manuel Ortega-Jimenez, who has studied how foraging hummingbirds might be using the electrostatic charges they generate and was not involved in the study, tells New Scientist.

Indeed, Hunting tells The Independent, the electrical field “changes for a while if a bee has visited a flower. . . . The next visiting bee could [detect] this and associate it with flowers that have little or no nectar present, and assist in their decision-making.

This benefit seems localized to individual bees visiting flowers and their hivemates. New Scientist chalks up the surprising data to a mystery that will require further study to fully understand:

It isn’t known if this ability is useful for bees or an accidental product of friction between their wings and the air – like a person rubbing a balloon on their clothes. The charge could serve an unknown purpose as bees use electric fields to forage for food, says Victor Manuel Ortega-Jiménez at the University of Maine.

Jiménez wonders if the same phenomenon is happening with other flying, swarming animals like birds and bats. “These are all interesting questions that this paper opens to investigate,” he says.

For scientists unhappy that the authors never mentioned Darwinian evolution, we offer some stories to satisfy their longings. Perhaps humans evolved a function for static electricity. It allows siblings to amuse themselves by scuffing their shoes on the carpet and touching doorknobs, or rubbing balloons to make them stick to walls, as a support for tribal unity. It might have evolved by sexual selection if the males do it to attract mates by displays of bravery or intellectual prowess.

We don’t see a problem with the data collection showing that insects carry static charges, and that the charge density and voltage grows as a function of swarm density. It seems like good old scientific discovery of an unexpected natural phenomenon. The authors appeared to abide by standard procedures for data collection with instruments and use of controls. Beyond that, the conclusions seem premature and speculative.

First, it would be good to see another team replicate the data. Then, this team or other teams should present hypotheses for the degree of atmospheric influence from biological static electricity, if any. Another good angle would be to seek any benefit to organisms, such as signaling, from static “information” in a swarm: for example, can starlings use that information in their murmurations for more precise and rapid coordination?

Starling murmuration (Illustra Media)

These would all be worthwhile follow-up investigations, but they should be done before the media takes this one study too far. We’re glad to see a biological study done without Darwinism getting involved (compare yesterday’s post). And wouldn’t it surprise the global elitists if subsequent research leads to headlines like, “Honeybees Cause Global Warming.” We’ll lend them a new term to use based on the honeybee species name, Apis mellifera, that would make for easy editing by removing from “Anthropogenic” just a few letters: Apigenic Climate Change.

 

 

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