Flowers may be silent, but scientists have just discovered that electric fields allow them to communicate with bumblebees and possibly other species, including humans.
It’s well known that color, shape, pattern and fragrances allow flowers to connect with pollinators, but the new study, published in the journal Science, adds electricity to this already impressive lineup.
The study co-authored by Professor Daniel Robert of the University of Bristol’s School of Biological Sciences indicates that this exchange between positively charged bees and grounded flowers acts as a benefit to both.
Bees have a positive electrical charge because they fly in air, which is full of all kinds of tiny particles, such as dust and charged molecules. Friction from these particles causes bees to lose electrons, leaving bumblebees positively charged.
Flowers, on the other hand, “are electrically connected to ground,” he said. Unlike copper wire, which transfers charges very quickly, plants conduct electricity very slowly and tend to possess a negative charge.
For the study, Robert and his team placed petunia flowers in an area with free-flying foraging bees. The researchers then studied how interactions between the two changed the electric fields and the bees’ behavior.
They determined that when a bee lands on a flower, this generates its own electrical field, and therefore a force. It’s as though a mini spark results when the two connect.
Robert and his colleagues believe “that the bee can sense this electrically induced force.” It appears to improve the bee’s memory of flower rewards, such as pollen and nectar, affecting later foraging.
The flower, in turn, is electrically changed for a short period after the interaction.
Viegas also included a response to the findings of electrical interaction between flowers and bees, given by Thomas Seeley, chairman of the Cornell University Department of Neurobiology and Behavior.
Seeley told DNews that the study “opens a window on a sensory system of the bees that we had no idea existed and no idea was used by bees during foraging.”
More research is needed on this newly discovered phenomenon, but it is even possible that electrical field changes happen when humans and other animals, such as birds, interact with flowers.
As Robert said, “When you bend over to sniff a flower, it will change (the flower’s electrical) potential. What the flower makes of that, I would not know… But I do hope very much that someone will take this up and look into it.”