Reception and learning of electric fields in bees

Uwe Greggers, Gesche Koch, Viola Schmidt, Aron Dürr, Amalia Floriou-Servou, David Piepenbrock, Martin C. Göpfert, Randolf Menzel

Abstract

Honeybees, like other insects, accumulate electric charge in flight, and when their body parts are moved or rubbed together. We report that bees emit constant and modulated electric fields when flying, landing, walking and during the waggle dance. The electric fields emitted by dancing bees consist of low- and high-frequency components. Both components induce passive antennal movements in stationary bees according to Coulomb's law. Bees learn both the constant and the modulated electric field components in the context of appetitive proboscis extension response conditioning. Using this paradigm, we identify mechanoreceptors in both joints of the antennae as sensors. Other mechanoreceptors on the bee body are potentially involved but are less sensitive. Using laser vibrometry, we show that the electrically charged flagellum is moved by constant and modulated electric fields and more strongly so if sound and electric fields interact. Recordings from axons of the Johnston organ document its sensitivity to electric field stimuli. Our analyses identify electric fields emanating from the surface charge of bees as stimuli for mechanoreceptors, and as biologically relevant stimuli, which may play a role in social communication.

  • Received February 27, 2013.
  • Accepted March 6, 2013.
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