26 October 2022 – Today I learned:

That swarming bees can electrify the air by as much as 1000 volts per meter, or more than a thunderstorm. That’s from an article at LiveScience, reporting on a study published this week at iScience, in which scientists measured “the electrical fields around honeybee (apis mellifera) hives for three minutes as the bees surged into the air.

active hive at The Fells, Newbury NH, June 2022
honeybees at hive, The Fells, Newbury NH, April 2020

The bees pick up the positive charge while out of the hive foraging, “either from the friction of air molecules against their rapidly beating wings (honeybees can flap their wings more than 230 times a second) or from landing onto electrically charged surfaces. … Electrostatic effects … enable bees to draw pollen to them.”

honeybee hovering above cosmos (can’t even see wings), Sept. 2017
you can actually see this bumblebee’s wings moving at a gentian, Aug. 2014

Not only bees but other insects make use of electrostatic charges, including spiders who “spin negatively charged webs that attract and ensnare the positively charged bodies of their prey.” Diabolical!

The report’s main author, a biologist at the University of Bristol, noted that

“We only recently discovered … there are many unsuspected links that can exist over different spatial scales, ranging from microbes in the soil and plant-pollinator interactions to insect swarms and the global electric circuit. … electric charge can seem like it lives solely in physics, but it is important to know how aware the whole natural world is of electricity in the atmosphere.”

SIDEBAR: I’ve been reading about the effects of ionic charges in soil microbes (and among pollinators and plants) for over a decade now. My permaculture group read in 2014, in Peter Bane’s The Permaculture Handbook about the oxygen-ethylene cycle (which I’d read about previously but can’t recall where), which in detail was over my head (ha ha – or under my feet) but in general, it describes how gasses (ethylene and ammonium nitrogen) produced when anaerobic bacteria feed causes nitrogen to dissolve and flow away, and when it does, iron, which is common and abundant in all soils, changes from ferric iron (red or rusty) to ferrous iron (black) by releasing an atom of oxygen into the now reduced atmosphere of the soil.

And this, Bane says,

has tremendous implications for soil fertility and agriculture because it initiates the assimilating phase of soil nutrient transfer to plants. Ferrous iron reacts with a precursor found in leaf litter to convert it into ethylene gas, helping to further inactivate aerobic bacteria. Iron in its ferrous form also sheds its bonds to phosphate, sulfate and ions of trace minerals, dumping them unceremoniously into solution. And this new and rather promiscuous ferrous iron then forms bonds with particles of clay and organic matter. As it does so, ions of magnesium, calcium, potassium and ammonium which had been occupying those sites are displaced, also into solution. The highest concentration of this activity is in the rhizosphere or tiny envelope of water surrounding the root hairs of plants. Thus, as soil microsite conditions change from aerobic to anaerobic, all the plant nutrients — nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, sulfur, calcium, magnesium and trace minerals, which had until then been held tightly to soil particles — enter into solution and can in that form be taken up by plant roots. This does not occur when the soil is constantly aerobic, nor does it occur when nitrate nitrogen — the form typically applied as chemical fertilizer — is present in large quantities.”

All this soil talk reminds me of reading David Haskell’s The Forest Unseen earlier this year, and his comments about how so much of life exists under the soil: “The seeming dominance of the aboveground world is … an illusion. At least half of the world’s activity is belowground.” And that we can study only 1% of this dark jungle in a lab because “the interdependencies among the other 99% are so tight, and our ignorance about how to mimic or replicate these bonds is so deep, that the microbes die if isolated from the whole.”

honeybee on Autumn Fire sedum, Sept. 2020


Whether these localised bee-induced electrical storms can themselves cause weather events seems unlikely, say the scientists, but “electric fields in the atmosphere can ionize particles of dust and pollutants, changing their movement in unpredictable ways. As dust can scatter sunlight, knowing how it moves and where it settles is important to understanding a region’s climate.”

The more you know, the more you know that you really don’t know much.

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