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Insects affect electric fields in the atmosphere, researchers find

AI rendered image of honeybee swarm and atmospheric electricity

AI rendered image of honeybee swarm and atmospheric electricity Ellard Hunting

Press release issued: 24 October 2022

The electric charge of insects can cause changes in the electricity of the atmosphere which are comparable with weather processes, researchers at the University of Bristol and University of Reading have found.

By measuring atmospheric electricity near a swarm of bees in flight, this study, published today in iScience, is the first to recognise biology as a source of space charge in the atmosphere.

Previously, the team have studied how different organisms use the static electric fields that are virtually everywhere in the environment. They have shown that bees and spiders use electric fields surrounding flowers for foraging and migration.

“We essentially always looked at how physics influenced biology, but at some point, we realized that biology might also be influencing physics,’ explained Dr Ellard Hunting, lead author of the paper and ecologist at Bristol’s School of Biological Sciences.

The honeybee swarm directly contributed to atmospheric electricity, in proportion to swarm density.  The team evaluated its relevance by calculating the electrical contribution of various swarming insect species and comparing this with common abiotic – physical, not biological, sources of charge. This revealed that the charge contribution of some insect swarms can be comparable with that of meteorologically-induced variations. The observed transport of charge by insects therefore demonstrates an unexplored role of biogenic space charge for physical and ecological processes in the atmosphere.  

Atmospheric physicist Prof. Giles Harrison from the University of Reading said: “Interdisciplinarity is always valuable - electric charge can seem like it lives solely in physics, but it is important to know how aware the whole natural world is of electricity in the atmosphere.

“Thinking more broadly, linking biology and physics might help with many puzzling problems, such as why large dust particles are found so far from the Sahara, which cannot be explained with existing ideas.”

The observed phenomenon is likely also relevant for other organisms in the atmosphere that carry an electric charge, including microbes and birds.

Ellard added: “It would be interesting to study how these organisms interact with other atmospheric processes such as the fluxes of ions and aerosols.”


‘Observed electric charge of insect swarms and their contribution to atmospheric electricity’ by Ellard Hunting, Liam O’Reilly, Giles Harrison et al in iScience.

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