By Sid Perkins
The electric fields that build up on honey bees as they fly, flutter their wings, or rub body parts together may allow the insects to talk to each other, a new study suggests. Tests show that the electric fields, which can be quite strong, deflect the bees' antennae, which, in turn, provide signals to the brain through specialized organs at their bases.
Scientists have long known that flying insects gain an electrical charge when they buzz around. That charge, typically positive, accumulates as the wings zip through the air—much as electrical charge accumulates on a person shuffling across a carpet. And because an insect's exoskeleton has a waxy surface that acts as an electrical insulator, that charge isn't easily dissipated, even when the insect lands on objects, says Randolf Menzel, a neurobiologist at the Free University of Berlin in Germany.
Although researchers have suspected for decades that such electrical fields aid pollination by helping the tiny grains stick to insects visiting a flower, only more recently have they investigated how insects sense and respond to such fields. Just last month, for example, a team reported that bumblebees may use electrical fields to identify flowers recently visited by other insects from those that may still hold lucrative stores of nectar and pollen. A flower that a bee had recently landed on might have an altered electrical field, the researchers speculated.
Now, in a series of lab tests, Menzel and colleagues have studied how honey bees respond to electrical fields. In experiments conducted in small chambers with conductive walls that isolated the bees from external electrical fields, the researchers showed that a small, electrically charged wand brought close to a honey bee can cause its antennae to bend. Other tests, using antennae removed from honey bees, indicated that electrically induced deflections triggered reactions in a group of sensory cells, called the Johnston's organ, located near the base of the antennae. In yet other experiments, honey bees learned that a sugary reward was available when they detected a particular pattern of electrical field.
Altogether, these tests suggest that the electrical fields that build up on bees due to their flight or movement are stimuli that could be used in social communication, the researchers report online this week in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
The team's findings "are very significant," says Fred Dyer, a behavioral biologist at Michigan State University in East Lansing. "I hadn't heard about the possibility that honey bees could use electrical fields."
One of the honey bees' forms of communication is the "waggle dance." When the insects have located a dense patch of flowers or a source of water, they skitter across the honeycomb in their hive in a pattern related to the direction of and the distance to the site. Fellow worker bees then take that information and forage accordingly. The biggest mystery about the dance, Dyer says, is which senses the bees use—often in the deep, dark recesses of their hive—to conduct their communication. "People have proposed a variety of methods: direct contact between bees, air currents from the buzzing of their wings, odors, even vibrations transmitted through the honeycomb itself," he says.
But the team's new findings introduce yet another mode of communication available to the insects, Dyer says. He notes that the group found that antenna deflections induced by an electrically charged honey bee wing are about 10 times the size of those that would be caused by airflow from the wing fluttering at the same distance—a sign that electrical fields could be an important signal.
"They show that the electrical fields are there and that they're within the range of what the animal can sense," Dyer says. "Their claim of evidence is quite compelling."
Also on HuffPost:
Best Visual Effects
<b>Nominees</b>: The glowing squid <i>Taningia danae</i>; the toothy and luminous Blackdragon fish; and the amazing <a href="http://www.livescience.com/16976-transparent-octopus-opaque-camouflage.html">transparent octopus</a> <i>Japetella heathi</i>. <b>And the winner is...</b> <i>Japetella heathi</i>. This deep-sea octopus possesses the amazing ability to switch from transparent to opaque and back again. In regular conditions, the octopuses are see-through, perhaps to prevent themselves as being seen as a dark silhouette against the ocean surface. But when bioluminescent light hits them, they instantaneously become pigmented, preventing a mirror-like glare from alerting potential predators to their existence. Well-played, <i>J. heathi</i>. Please limit your acceptance speech to 45 seconds.
Best Sound Mixing
This technical prize goes to the animal that really brings it in the sound department. <b>Nominees:</b> The water boatman, for its incredibly loud genitals; the rumbling <a href="http://www.livescience.com/15966-mantis-shrimp-rumble.html">California mantis shrimp</a>; and the Emei music frog, for her beautiful love songs. <b>And the winner is</b> ... The water boatman. This itsy-bitsy insect is the loudest creature on Earth relative to body size, and boy does he pull it off in the weirdest way. Male water boatman <a href="http://www.livescience.com/14869-loudest-animal-calls-genitals.html">rub their genitals</a> against ridges on their bodies to produce mating songs that rival in loudness listening to an orchestra from the front-row seat. Truly an award-winning feat.
Best Sound Editing
This award goes to the animal with the all-around coolest call. <b>Nominees:</b> Barking piranhas, for their species-bending approach to communication; Dolphins <a href="http://www.livescience.com/18074-dolphins-sleep-talk-whale-song.html">sleep-talking in foreign tongues</a>; and the lion, for its grating, effortless roar. <b>And the winner is</b> ... the dolphin. These marine mammals go the extra mile by mimicking the sounds of other species. Recently, a group of captive dolphins in France was caught sleep-talking in the language of whales -- a language they'd only heard played on recordings at their aquatic theme park home. We assume they're getting into Method acting.
This award goes to the animal with the most melodious call. <b>Nominees:</b> The Philippine tarsier (we're sure its <a href="http://www.livescience.com/18359-embargoed-world-highest-pitched-primate-calls-bat.html">ultrasonic calls</a> sound pleasant to its own kind); the crooning Emei music frog; and the humpback whale. <b>And the winner is</b> ... the humpback whale. It's a tough call, but the haunting music of humpback whales takes the Animal Academy Award. The whales are amazingly diverse, with different populations <a href="http://www.livescience.com/18279-humpback-whale-songs-distinct.html">singing distinct songs</a>. The songs also <a href="http://www.livescience.com/665-grammar-revealed-love-songs-whales.html">follow grammatical rules</a> to convey information.
This award goes to the creature that can best alter its appearance to blend in. <b>Nominees</b>: The black-marbled jawfish, for its ability to <a href="http://www.livescience.com/17745-fish-mimics-octopus.html">mimic an octopus</a> that mimics a fish; the land snail <em>Napaeus barquini</em>, for its do-it-yourself application of camouflaging lichen; and the <a href="http://www.livescience.com/12688-psychedelic-cephalopods-swiftly-switch-color-schemes.html">cuttlefish</a>, which can mimic both the color and the texture of its surroundings. <b>And the winner is</b> ... the black-marbled jawfish. We love the multidimensional portrayal of a mimic mimicking a mimic. And whose heart wouldn't be melted by the plucky little underdog jawfish finding a way to venture out of his burrow without fear of predators?
Best Costume Design
This award goes to the flashiest, most colorful animal around. <b>Nominees</b>: The <a href="http://www.livescience.com/17138-poison-frogs-color-evolution.html ">poison dart frog</a>, which has evolved brilliant neon skin to warn predators of its toxicity; the peacock, for reasons both obvious and iridescent; and the harlequin shrimp, for its clownlike colors and extra frills. <b>And the winner is </b>... the harlequin shrimp. These pretty predators are popular for aquarium enthusiasts, but their diet makes keeping them in captivity tricky: The shrimp eat only starfish. And they eat them alive. Sometimes over a period of weeks. Let's move on to the next category, shall we?
Best Supporting Actor/Actress
This award goes to the animal with the weirdest group behavior. <b>Nominees:</b> Guppies, for their Jerry-Springer-worthy "girl fights" over males; <a href="http://www.livescience.com/18326-beetle-sperm-evolution.html">diving beetle sperm</a> (yes, we know, technically not an animal!), for their creepy ability to join together to navigate the female reproductive tract; timber rattlesnakes, for their heretofore unknown snuggly behavior. <b>And the winner is</b> ... snuggly snakes. Rattlesnakes seem like the standoffish sort, but new research suggests that they're actually <a href="http://www.livescience.com/18577-rattlesnakes-social-animals-kin.html">more sociable</a> than expected, clustering with their kin. Rattlesnake family reunion, anyone?
This prize is for the best male mating display. <b>Nominees:</b> The always over-the-top peacock, for his garish feather displays; the hilarious houbara bustard, for their <a href="http://www.livescience.com/15410-sexy-show-offs-burn.html">wild mating runs</a>, which have them flinging a shield of white feathers over their faces and scampering around blindly; and the marvelous <a href="http://www.livescience.com/1480-video-reveals-rare-hummingbird-courtship-display.html">Spatuletail hummingbird</a>, which whirls its long tail in circles to impress the ladies. <b>And the winner is</b> ... the houbara bustard. Tough competition for this one, and the Animal Academy doesn't usually reward comedy, but the houbara bustard gives it his all for this win. Plus chest features are totally in this year.
Though females aren't usually as flashy as males in the wild, this award goes to the female animal that puts on the best mating display. <b>Nominees:</b> Female butterflies, which, if raised in cool temperatures, take it upon themselves to <a href="http://www.livescience.com/9216-cool-weather-heats-female-butterfly-quest-sex.html">pursue males</a> for mates; Wilson's Phalaropes, which switch the usual sex roles and put on flashy courtship displays to snag guys; and the bonobo, for whom sex is an anything-goes group activity. <b>And the winner is</b> ... the Wilson's Pharlarope. Females in this species of shorebird show up at breeding grounds first and puff up their feathers to lure in mates. Once they snag a guy, they defend him zealously, protecting a territory around the nest where he cares for their babies.
<b>Nominees</b>: Zombie ants, who capitalize on zombie-mania when attacked by a <a href="http://www.livescience.com/14064-zombie-ant-fungus-parasite.html">mind-controlling fungus</a>; the glowing millipedes of the genus Mytoxia, who <a href="http://www.livescience.com/16221-glowing-millipedes-toxic-warning.html ">sweat cyanide</a> to ward off predators; and the <a href="http://www.livescience.com/16564-cyclops-shark-cryptozoology.html">Cyclops shark</a>, a malformed dusky fetus whose look mixes grotesque and cute in equal measure. <b>And the winner is</b> ... the Cyclops shark. Millipedes and ants are forever, but this weird fetus is one-of-a-kind, or at least very rare. Considering that the fetal shark is very unlikely to have survived outside the womb, the least we can do is offer it a nice posthumous statuette -- and, of course, the <a href="http://www.livescience.com/16582-cyclops-shark-pictures.html ">obligatory Academy Award memorial reel</a>.