Bees do the most peculiar thing when the moon goes dark: nothing.
The insects will quit buzzing when a solar eclipse reaches complete darkness, according to a study by researchers at the University of Missouri.
The researchers found that a solar eclipse would trigger similar behaviour in bees to how they behave at dusk: flying slower and returning to their colonies at night. This sheds some light on how bees respond to environmental cues that they didn’t expect.
The study involved nearly 400 participants including scientists, members of the public and elementary school teachers and students who helped set up 16 monitoring stations across Oregon, Idaho and Missouri that were part of the path of totality during the 2017 eclipse.
Small USB microphones protected by windscreens to minimise noise — far away from foot and vehicle traffic — were suspended on lanyards near bee-pollinated flowers at each station to record flight buzzes. Light and temperature data were also captured in some locations.
An analysis of the data collected showed that bees continued to be active in the phases before and after totality, but during totality, they completely stopped flying. Immediately before and after totality, bee flights tended to be longer in duration. The researchers thought this could be an indication the bees were returning to their nests or that they had reduced flight speed to lower collision risks.
Scientists have long been fascinated by animal behaviour during solar eclipses. In the study, the researchers also noted earlier observations made on the behavioural responses of seabirds, antelope and cattle.
“The eclipse gave us an opportunity to ask whether the novel environmental context — mid-day, open skies — would alter the bees’ behavioral response to dim light and darkness. As we found, complete darkness elicits the same behavior in bees, regardless of timing or context. And that’s new information about bee cognition,” said Candace Galen, lead researcher on the study.
At the next total solar eclipse, which takes on April 8, 2024, Galen and her team hope to find out if bees return home when the “lights go out” at totality, she said. They are hence working to enhance their audio-analysis software to distinguish the flights that foraging bees make when they leave or return to their colonies.
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