A newly discovered form of communication between the bees and plants

A flower's electric field, right, with associated electric potential on the left. (Credit: Dominic Clarke)
A flower’s electric field, right, with associated electric potential on the left. (Credit: Dominic Clarke)

Researchers have found that bees and plants have a kind of “talk” in the form of weak electrical signals that help the bees to know about the nectar.

This research has been published online in the journal Science.

Plants have the ability to emit weak electrical signals as they have a negative electrical charge. On the other hand, bees’ flapping wings produce a positive electrical charge of up to 200 volts as they move from one flower to another flower.

In order to detect whether the bees are affected by the electrical charges of the plants or not, researchers exposed the bees to the artificial flowers. They charged electrically, half of the flowers along with the sugary reward and found that the bees started visiting the flowers with electrical charges while ignoring the others. When the researchers switched off the charges, bees started visiting the flowers randomly, showing that the bees respond to the electrical signals.

“Animals are just constantly surprising us as to how good their senses are,” Dominic Clarke, lead author of the study told the BBC. “More and more we’re starting to see that nature’s senses are almost as good as they could possibly be.”

Bees are attracted towards the flowers not only due to the fragrance and electrical signals but also due to the presence of bright colors and it has been found that bees see colors three times faster than humans. This attraction of bees towards the flowers is not only helpful for bees to get nectar for honey but also helpful for flowers to spread their pollens.

“This is a magnificent interaction where you have an animal and a plant, and they both want this to go as well as possible,” study co-author Gregory Sutton told NPR. “The flowers are trying to make themselves look as different as possible. This is to establish the flower’s brand.”

“This sensory modality … facilitate rapid and dynamic communication between flowers and their pollinators.” Researchers noted.

Reference:

Dominic Clarke, Heather Whitney, Gregory Sutton, Daniel Robert, (2013). Detection and Learning of Floral Electric Fields by Bumblebees. Science, doi: 10.1126/science.1230883

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