Electric Pollen

 

Did you know that flowers carry an electric charge? So do bees.

Researchers at the University of Bristol have been investigating this amazing phenomenon.

Flowers are negatively charged, a charge they acquire from the atmosphere around them. On a sunny day, every meter of atmosphere from the ground upwards carries a charge of around 100 volts. Flowering plants draw from this charge, in the end themselves becoming slightly electrified to about 40 volts.

 
<img src="https://daisydukesgardens.files.wordpress.com/2013/04/covered_in_pumpkin_pollen_by_dalantech.jpg" alt="" title="Bee Covered in Pollen" width="735" height="438" class="alignleft size-full wp-image-1610"

 

Bees, on the other hand, are positively charged. Flying through the air at high speeds and bumping into dust particles along the way, a bee's tiny hairs become positively charged much the same way your socks become after shuffling along a carpet.

 

Flower in normal light, ultraviolet light and a representation of its electric fields.

 

When a bee lands on a flower it is an electric connection. The meeting of these two charges causes pollen to literally jump from the flower on to the bee. This static will keep pollen lodged safely onto the bee’s body until is rubbed off back at the hive or on to a flower of the opposite gender, resulting in a successful pollination.

This process is just another incredible addition to the pollination methods employed by flowers. Along with seasonal coincidence, color, pattern and fragrance, flowers use an electrical charge to convey critical information to bees.

 

A bee doing what it does best.
 

It is an important tool in identification, allowing bees to discern the shape of a flower by the electric charge outlining its petals. It can also notify a bee whether or not it is bearing pollen. When a bee lands on a flower, the charge of that flower spikes by about 25 millivolts and remains so for almost 2 minutes after a bee’s departure. A heighten electric state is a signal to bees that follow that the flower has just been visited and may not have as much pollen as expected.

To test the relationship between bees and the electrical charge of flowers, researchers created a laboratory meadow of fake flowers. These “flowers” were in fact plastic cups dotted at the bottom with either a sweet sugary solution or bitter quinine.

 

Bee pollinating a pear tree.
 
When bees were released among the flowers, they visited both the sugary and bitter flowers at an equal rate. However, when the researchers gave the sweet cups a slight electric charge, the bees began to differentiate between the sweet and bitter flowers with an 80% accuracy. Soon after the electric charge was disconnected, the bees lost their accuracy and began to visit both flowers once more at an equal rate.

 

Flowers sprayed with colored particles (color in box corresponds to colored particles) to reveal their electric field. Courtesy of National Geographic.
 

So far, bees are the only insect known to science capable of detecting electrical fields. A fascinating chapter in the evolutionary story of plant life and their main pollinators, researchers at the University of Bristol are continuing their studies to deepen our understanding of this marvel of nature.

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