Why are Bumblebees so hairy?

Biomechanical engineer Gregory Sutton shares his research into bumblebees and static charge.

Vocabulary: static, static electrical field, electrical charge, forage, experiment, voltage, sensory hairs

Next Generation Science Standards: PS2.B: Types of Interactions, LS1.A: Structure and Function, and SEP3: Planning and Carrying Out Investigations. Can be used to build towards the following performance expectations: 2-LS2–2, 3-PS2–3, MS-PS2–3, MS-PS2–5, HS-PS2–6.

Common Core State Standards: CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RST.6–8.4, CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RST.9–10.4, CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RST.11–12.4

Bumble Bee covered with Pollen. Credit: Smudge 9000/CC BY-SA 2.0/Flickr

Bumblebees Pick Up on the ‘Buzz’ From Flowers — Bumblebees detect different visual and chemical cues from flowers to identify which ones contain a nectar reward. Reporting in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers discovered that the furry insects use the hair on their bodies to detect weak electrical signals put out by flowers. Biomechanical engineer Gregory Sutton, an author on the paper, discusses how bees sense this electric buzz.

Audio Excerpt “Bumblebees Pick Up on the ‘Buzz’ From Flowers,” Jun 3, 2016. (Original Segment)

Print this segment transcript.

Questions

  • Describe the different stages of Sutton’s bumblebee study. Why do you think the researchers included all of those stages? How do these stages help them strengthen their findings?
  • Why was it important for this experiment to use a chemical that the bees could not smell? What other variables did they try to control in the experiment?
  • Flowers generate an electrical field that bumblebees can detect using electroreception. Based on the interview, what do you think electroreception is?
  • The bee below is a mess, it is covered in pollen! Scientists found videos that showed pollen flying from flowers to bees. If bees are positively charged. What kind of charge, positive or negative, do you think that pollen has? Explain your thinking and create an illustration that helps you explain the interaction between bee, pollen, and flower. Be sure to label charges.
Melissodes desponsa. Credit: USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab (Public Domain)

Activity Suggestions

  • Have your students explore how different materials, including their own hair, respond to static charge using a variety of objects (wool, balloons, confetti, puffed rice cereal, foam, acrylic rods, e.g.). They can start with this static exploration or you can even have them use this activity to explore static using a vinyl record. Next, have students model one of the phenomena from the interview: bee detection of the static charge or use of static to pick up pollen. In a discussion have students discuss the successes and limitations of their model.
  • Want to look at insect hairs? Use a hand lens or dissecting scope to take a closer look at insect specimens (or collect some great up-close photos of insects). Try to find a guide for your region, like this North Carolina home insect guide by the Rob Dunn Lab, to help you ID your insects. You can also sites like BugGuide, UW Madison Insect ID, or Insect identification (young learner friendly). After collecting information on the presence and amount of hair, have students discuss the next steps in Sutton’s work with bumblebees.

Additional Resources

In his interview with Science Friday, Gregory Sutton also talked about how static affects how bees pick up pollen, listen to an excerpt from that interview. (Transcript)

Learn more about static electricity and static discharge with this quick overview.

What does it feel like to be a bee? Learn about the senses and life of a bee.

Bumblebee showing the array of hairs on its body. Image courtesy of Gregory Sutton, Dom Clarke, Erica Morley, and Daniel Robert