The Flower Electric

Screen Shot 2013-02-22 at 9.38.35 AMCommunication comes in so many forms, and for the most part, we humans focus on the verbal and physically visible. But how about interspecies electrical communication?

A newly published study in an upcoming issue of Science provides some evidence that flowers, in addition to using color and nectar to attract pollinator bees and bumblebees, may also be using cues of electrical current to advertise their bounty. From the press release:

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.

By placing electrodes in the stems of petunias, the researchers showed that when a bee lands, the flower’s potential changes and remains so for several minutes.  Could this be a way by which flowers tell bees another bee has recently been visiting?  To their surprise, the researchers discovered that bumblebees can detect and distinguish between different floral electric fields. Also, the researchers found that when bees were given a learning test, they were faster at learning the difference between two colours when electric signals were also available.

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.

The discovery of such electric detection has opened up a whole new understanding of insect perception and flower communication.”


I wonder whether a species such as our own have found this information utterly self-explanatory if we ourselves had always communicated directly with our surroundings via electrical charge in addition to our current palate of verbal and visual methods. How many other forms of communication elude us simply because they are outside our own daily parameters of perception?


University of Bristol – Floral Signs Go Electric

ABC Science – Flowers Buzz Bees With Electricity

Science: Detection and Learning of Floral Electric Fields by BumblebeesD. Clarke, H. Whitney, G. Sutton, D. Robert

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