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Bumblebees Find Flowers By Sensing Their Electric Fields

December 30th, 2016

While most of us probably think that bees find flowers to pollinate by sensing their bright colors, shape, and unique scents. However, that’s not entirely true. Flowers give off electrical signals, which bees can actually sense, and it is these electrical signals that bees actually use to help them navigate to the right flowers. Scientists previously thought bees sensed these electric fields with their antennae, but that has now been proven false.

A new study has found that it is actually the tiny hairs placed all over a bumblebee’s body that help them find flowers. These fuzzy hairs can sense the unique electric signals emitted by different flowers, and use these hairs to locate the pollen. Each of the thousands of flowering plants in nature require a bumblebee to spend a bit of time and effort figuring out exactly how extract their nectar. Since it takes some time to master just one kind of flower, bees tend to then want to stick with that kind of flower rather than spend more time and energy learning how to extract nectar from a different kind. Those electric signals that are unique to each flower helps them communicate with pollinators, so they can let them know what kind of flower they are and then hopefully foster a relationship with the bees that pollinate it, so they keep coming back. The bee’s tiny hairs apparently begin to “dance in response to electric fields,” picking up static electricity and then send signals through the bee’s nervous system to tell them what exactly they are sensing.

If bees use their tiny hairs to sense these electric fields, what helps other pollinators sense them?

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