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The Electric Buzz

Published In: Pests

The Electric Buzz: The Secret Behind Bumblebee Fuzz

I love writing about bugs, but sometimes I struggle to think of new and exciting topics to explore in my writing. Sometimes I ask around for ideas, and I recently asked our Training Coordinator Ashley, “if you could ask one question about insects, what would it be?” She said, “Kristen, I don’t know, why do bumblebees have fur?” I thought I knew the answer (“to collect pollen”), so I didn’t think it was a worthy topic. It turns out, I was wrong. Bumblebee fuzz does much more than just collect pollen.

The Purpose of the Bumblebee’s Fuzz

The vibrant coloration of flowers is not just electric looking; it is literally electric. A flower’s delicate form actually generates a weak electric field. Recent studies show that a bumblebee can sense that “electric buzz,” and the secret to how they do this is in their fuzz! There is a constant electric field that is always in the background in the atmosphere, so when a plant connects to the ground it generates its own electric field just by its interaction with the atmosphere. In 2013, experiments using fake electrically charged flowers showed that bumblebees were actually able to detect this small electric field; however, at the time they were unsure exactly how the bees were able to do it. Three years later in 2016, that problem was solved! There was a paper published showing that these bees are detecting the electric fields using the tiny hairs on their bodies.

How do they do it, though? The bees use what are called mechanosensory hairs that are very common across the phylum Arthropoda. When studying these hairs by using a sensitive laser, scientists were able to measure the minute motion of a bee’s hairs and antennae when exposed to an electromagnetic field similar to that of a flower. They found that their hairs are much more sensitive than their antennae. Because these hairs are lighter and thinner than antennae, they are faster to respond and showed greater movement. Researchers went even further to study the neurons at the base of these hairs; they found that they too were more sensitive than that of antennae and would produce a firing when hairs starting waving around electric fields. This concept is similar to the phenomenon of rubbing human hair on a balloon: the hair will stand out toward the balloon. So the thought is that for bees, this bending of hair is also signaling to them the difference in flower types.

Pretty neat right? The little gems that we can learn from insects never cease to amaze me. So next time you see a fuzzy bumblebee, take a look at all that fuzz and remember that bees never have a bad hair day, just a useful one!

By: Kristen Stevens, BCE

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