Building the World

ENERGY: the buzz on how bees generate electricity


The electrical charge from a bee’s flight can help identify a flower with ample pollen. Image: “Bee-Apis” by Maciej A. Czyzewski, CC 4.0. Included with appreciation.

In an era when we seek to electrify many aspects of modern life, some of the most ancient life forms may teach us a thing or two. Bees, and other aerial insects, create an electrical charge. When a bee flutters its wings, the movement generates a positive electrical charge; you might compare this to the spark that can be raised by rubbing your stockinged feet across a carpet or a balloon on your arm. For bees, that electrical charge stays on their body and helps to pull pollen from a visited flower. An “echo” of the electrical signal is left behind, so the next bee hovering nearby can sense whether the flower has been recently visited and savored, or may offer a fresh serving of pollen.

What is the electrical effect of a swarm? Image: “Optical illusion disc with birds, butterflies, and person jumping.” 1833. Library of Congress: 00651165. Public Domain. Included with appreciation.

If one bee or butterfly can generate electricity, what’s the effect of a swarm or a group migration? Scientists have discovered that Earth’s atmosphere holds several kinds of electrical charges; these energy fields influence things like aerosols and dust. Recent studies have confirmed that insect swarms contribute to atmospheric electricity; the more dense a swarm, the more electricity enters the atmosphere. There’s a measurement protocol ranging from picocoulombs to nanocoulombs (one coulomb equals the quantity of electrical charge that passes a point in an electric circuit in one second by a steady current of one ampere. The term is named after Charles Augustin de Coulomb (1736-1806), physicist credited with discoveries in electricity and magnetism).

“A plague of locusts.” by SCIRO, Science Image 2007. CC3.0. wikimedia. Included with appreciation.

Honeybees, butterflies, and locusts are among aerial insects that produce significant atmospheric electrical charges. If a swarm is large enough (think Biblical descriptions of plagues of locusts), the insects’ electrical charge can equal that from weather events like storms. In current climate models, and observations by weather satellites by NASA and ESA, insect swarms are rarely included when assessing atmospheric dust, or interaction of radiation and particulate matter. Should we count insect swarms along with thunderstorms?

“Lightening Storm” by Jan Bambach, 2015. Wikimedia 3.0. Included with appreciation.

‘Save the honey bee’ campaigns rightly champion preserving pollinators on the ground; now there is evidence of influence a bit higher up. It’s one more way we are realizing that Earth’s climate is an interconnected system.

Hunting, E.R. et al., “Observed electric charge of insect swarms and their contribution to atmospheric electricity.” 24 October 222. Cell. iScience. DOI:

Savitsky, Zack. “Swarming bees stir up their own electric fields: Insect swarms can generate more volts per meter than thunderstorms.” 25 October 2022. Science.

Building the World Blog by Kathleen Lusk Brooke and Zoe G. Quinn is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Un

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