Nature is certainly majestic, and every time we delve into its intimacy we find surprising relationships and phenomena. This time, electrical agitation caused by bees beating their wings in the atmosphere has combined with atmospheric physics to create a symbiotic natural phenomenon. And it’s possible that this impact recently described by a multidisciplinary study is even more potent than the impact of an electrical storm.
The science and other stuff to know
During a storm there are temperature differences in the atmosphere: the part closest to the Earth’s surface is warmer than the more distant ones. As a consequence of this phenomenon, the electrical charges in the atmosphere are rearranged, causing them to become polarized—positive charges are grouped on one side and negative charges on the other. The rays are produced when a kind of chain of electrons is assembled throughout the atmosphere seeking to reestablish the electrical balance between the different polarized layers.
A study recently published in the journal iScience found that swarms of insects can generate an electrical disturbance in the surrounding atmosphere comparable to that of a storm: the mere flapping of their wings causes the ionization of the surrounding atmospheric gas and, if the swarm is sufficiently large and dense, they can vary the electrical charge of the atmosphere by an average of 500 volts/meter!
In the study, it was seen that the honeybee swarm directly contributed to atmospheric electricity, in ratio to swarm density. By calculating the electrical contribution of various swarming insect species and contrasting it with common abiotic charge sources, the team was able to evaluate its significance, demonstrating that some insect swarms’ charge contributions are comparable to variations brought on by the weather. The charge transport by insects reveals a previously unrecognized function of biogenic space charge in atmospheric physical and ecological processes.
Dr. Liam O’Reilly is a co-author of the study and explained in the official press release that they “also calculated the influence of locusts on atmospheric electricity, since locusts swarm on biblical scales, with a size of 460 square miles with 80 million of lobsters in less than a square mile; their influence is probably much greater than that of bees.”
“Basically, we always looked at how physics was influencing biology, but at some point, we realized that biology might be influencing physics as well,” lead author Ellard Hunting, who is an ecologist at Bristol’s School of Biological Sciences.
It may seem that electric charge only exists in physics, but it’s important to know how much of the natural world is aware of electricity in the atmosphere. This is where interdisciplinarity becomes incredibly valuable, which makes this finding all the more exciting as it helps experts understand the existent multilateral relationship between the ecosystem and natural phenomena that seem independent of each other.
The experts who collaborated in the research maintain that delving into this interdisciplinary field can lead to the understanding of phenomena that until now are inexplicable to us.
“Thinking more broadly, linking biology and physics might help with many puzzling problems, such as why large dust particles are found so far from the Sahara, which cannot be explained with existing ideas,” atmospheric physicist Prof. Giles Harrison from the University of Reading said.
The observed phenomenon likely also applies to other electrically charged organisms in the atmosphere, such as microbes and birds. According to lead researcher Hunting, it would be an interesting endeavor “to study how these organisms interact with other atmospheric processes such as the fluxes of ions and aerosols.”