News Stories

Flowers Zap Bees

Flowers' methods of communicating are at least as sophisticated as any devised by an advertising agency, but for any advertisement to be successful, it has to reach, and be perceived by, its target audience. Pollinators such as bumblebees are able to find and distinguish electric signals given out by flowers.

Flowers often produce bright colors, patterns and enticing fragrances to attract their pollinators. Researchers found that flowers also have their equivalent of a neon sign--patterns of electrical signals that can communicate information to the insect pollinator. These electrical signals can work in concert with the flower's other attractive signals and enhance floral advertising power.

Plants are usually charged negatively and emit weak electric fields. On their side, bees acquire a positive charge as they fly through the air. No spark is produced as a charged bee approaches a charged flower, but a small electric force builds up that can potentially convey information.

How then do bees detect electric fields? This is not yet known, although the researchers speculate that hairy bumblebees bristle up under the electrostatic force, just like one's hair in front of an old television screen.

Researcher Heather Whitney says, "This novel communication channel reveals how flowers can potentially inform their pollinators about the honest status of their precious nectar and pollen reserves."

Researcher Daniel Robert says, "The co-evolution between flowers and bees has a long and beneficial history, so perhaps it's not entirely surprising that we are still discovering today how remarkably sophisticated their communication is.

"The last thing a flower wants is to attract a bee and then fail to provide nectar: a lesson in honest advertising since bees are good learners and would soon lose interest in such an unrewarding flower.

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