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Electric buzz

By Pat, 1 March 2013 News

Honey bee on a flower.

Bees are important pollinators in many ecosystems.
Image: Denis Anderson/CSIRO

Flowers have adaptations such as vivid colours and strong scents to attract bees. According to recent research, they might also have a more electric way of bringing all the bees to the yard.

Many plants use pollen to reproduce. The pollen from the male parts of a flower is transferred to the female parts of a flower in a process called pollination. Pollination results in the fertilisation of the plant, allowing seeds to grow. Pollination can occur by a number of methods, including being blown by wind or carried in water. Most pollination, however, requires other organisms.

Bees are great pollinators. They collect nectar from flowers to make honey. When they visit a flower, often pollen will stick to their bodies. When they buzz on over to another flower some of the pollen can fall off, pollinating the second flower.

In addition to flowers evolving bright colours, alluring shapes and pleasant odours to attract bees, electric fields might also play a role. As bees fly through the air, they lose some of their electrons, becoming positively charged. In contrast, plants have a slight negative charge. These charges have electric fields associated with them.

To determine if bees can detect these tiny electric fields, a group of researchers set up fake flowers. One half of the flowers contained a sugar and the other half had a bitter substance. The researchers applied an electric field to the sweet flowers, while the bitter flowers were neutral. In every other way the flowers were identical.

They found that over time the bees made more visits to the sweet flowers. When the electric field was removed, the bees weren’t able to distinguish between the sweet and bitter flowers better than would be expected by chance. The researchers concluded that the bees are able to detect the electric fields around plants and flowers, and use this information to determine which flowers to visit.

Many important fruit, nut and vegetable crops around the world rely on pollinators such as bees for fertilisation. Understanding the interactions between plants and bees could have important benefits for agricultural science.

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