The North American total solar eclipse of 2017 was a landmark event. Attracting both lay people and scientists in droves, it saw many people turn their gazes to the sky. For a group of researchers however, the elements of interest were bees. For the first time, the behavior of bees in solar eclipses was tracked by citizen scientists affiliated with the University of Missouri. Their results, published recently in the Annals of the Entomological Society of America, highlighted a number of unexpected findings.
Bee activity is deeply linked to sunlight, in the absence of which bees normally become inactive. While this hypothesis was verified by their findings, the researchers noticed that bee activity declined abruptly, instead of slowly decreasing as light levels went down.
For several minutes during the eclipse period, when an entire patch of the US experienced total eclipse, the bees went silent in these locations. They stopped flying and buzzing and only began their regular activity minutes later when moon’s shadow was removed.
Furthermore, the study provided new insights into bee cognition :- bees were found to respond to darkness in the same manner, irrespective of timing and other contextual factors. This incredible citizen scientist project showed that all forms of darkness thus mean the same to bees, irrespective of whether it represents night or an eclipse.
The project also represented a landmark in participation. Among the 400 citizen scientists involved were a large number of teachers and students, who monitored 16 stations across the states of Oregon, Idaho and Missouri. Using USB microphones, the participants recorded bee buzzes, which were used to represent activity, and thus correlated with eclipse timings.
Feature image via cc/Flickr