The atmosphere hosts multiple sources of electric charge that influence critical processes such as the aggregation of droplets and the removal of dust and aerosols. This is evident in the variability of the atmospheric electric field.
Scientists have discovered that insects can generate as much ambient electric charge as a thunderstorm cloud by measuring the electrical fields near swarming honeybees. This kind of energy aids in influencing weather patterns, helps insects discover food and lifts spiders into the air to enable long-distance migration.
Scientists combine theoretical and empirical evidence to demonstrate that honeybee swarms directly contribute to atmospheric electricity by 100 to 1,000 volts per meter. This increases the electric field force normally experienced at ground level.
The model also quantified the influence of other species of insects by comparing the electrical contribution of various swarming insect species with common abiotic sources of charge. This reveals that the charge contribution of some insect swarms will be comparable with that of meteorologically induced variations.
Co-author Liam O’Reilly, a biologist at the University of Bristol, said, “How insect swarms influence atmospheric electricity depends on their density and size. We also calculated the influence of locusts on atmospheric electricity, as locusts swarm on biblical scales, sizing 460 square miles with 80 million locusts in less than a square mile; their influence is likely much greater than honeybees.”
“We only recently discovered that biology and static electric fields are intimately linked and that there are many unsuspected links that can exist over different spatial scales, ranging from microbes in the soil and plant-pollinator interactions to insect swarms and perhaps the global electric circuit.”
Co-author Giles Harrison, an atmospheric physicist from the University of Reading, said, “Interdisciplinarity is valuable here — 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.”
- Ellard R. Hunting, Liam J. O’Reilly, R. Giles Harrison, Konstantine Manser, Sam J. England, Beth H. Harris, Daniel Robert. Observed electric charge of insect swarms and their contribution to atmospheric electricity. iScience, 2022; 105241 DOI: 10.1016/j.isci.2022.105241