Scientists Abuzz After Baffling Bee Behavior During Total Solar Eclipse

Thursday, 11 October 2018 - 9:59AM
Thursday, 11 October 2018 - 9:59AM
Scientists Abuzz After Baffling Bee Behavior During Total Solar Eclipse
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What do animals know that we don't know? The New York Times reports that during last summer's total solar eclipse, bees at 16 monitoring stations in Oregon, Idaho, and Missouri that had been buzzing like normal throughout the day suddenly just stopped buzzing altogether when the peak of the eclipse reached them. It's like when you walk into a room and everyone stops talking, only much creepier because we're talking about bees and not gossiping humans.

The new study, pre-published in the Annals of the Entomological Society of America, enlisted the help of elementary school classes and volunteers across the three states to listen to audio recordings from USB microphones ("USBees") planted in gardens and flower patches and to count the number of bees they heard. They also placed temperature sensors in those locations to see if there was any correlation with the activity of the bees. "We expected there would be a gradual decrease in the number of buzzes as it got darker and darker, but we didn't see that," said study lead and University of Missouri biologist Candace Galen. "At totality, they just stopped. It was very surprising." 

A bee's buzz is the sound of its wings vibrating during flight. No buzzing suggests that the bees just stopped flying during the eclipse (which some of the elementary school children predicted would happen), but the scientists are not sure why. One theory is that it has something to do with the insects picking up on the drop in sunlight with their pollinators. "We scientists have more fancy ways of saying the same thing, but the kids were pretty much right," Galen said of the hypothesis that the bees would think it was nighttime during the eclipse and land. "It was a pretty humbling experience for someone with a Ph.D. and 30 years of research experience to have the kids get it correct right from the start."

For the upcoming 2024 eclipse, Galen plans to test the theory that the bees actually return home during an eclipse. She plans to upgrade her audio equipment so that she can distinguish between the sounds of bees that are foraging and those that are en route to their respective colonies.

Previous studies have shown weird behavior by some fish, apes, and spiders during eclipses. Meanwhile we just stand there staring at the sky.

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