While the US buzzed with excitement over the August 2017 total solar eclipse, bees remained oddly silent.
Researchers at the University of Missouri last year set up acoustic monitoring stations across the country to study a solar eclipse’s influence on insect bee-havior*.
The results, published Wednesday in the Annals of the Entomological Society of America, suggest bees—like millions of humans—took a break from their daily routines to watch the cosmic event.
“We anticipated, based on a smattering of reports in the literature, that bee activity would drop as light dimmed during the eclipse and would reach a minimum at totality,” lead study author Candace Galen, a professor of biological sciences at the University of Missouri, said in a statement.
“But we had not expected that the change would be so abrupt, that bees would continue flying up until totality and only then stop, completely,” she continued. “It was like ‘lights out’ at summer camp. That surprised us.”
The disruption of light as the Moon’s shadow completely covers the Sun has been known to affect animals—particularly domesticated pets, which may become nervous or confused by the mid-day darkening.
Few formal studies, however, have examined the behavior of insects in particular, and none looked at bees.
Luckily, Galen & Co. had recently field-tested a system to remotely track bee pollination by listening to their flight buzzes.
“It seemed like the perfect fit,” she said. “The tiny microphones and temperature sensors could be placed near flowers hours before the eclipse, leaving us free to put on our fancy glasses and enjoy the show.”
More than 400 participants—including scientists and elementary school classrooms—helped to set up 16 monitoring stations along the path of totality in Oregon, Idaho, and Missouri. Galen’s lab then collected and analyzed the recordings.
Data showed the insects remained active during partial eclipse phases before and after, though tended toward slower flight under reduced light or while returning to their nests. Similar behavior is common at dusk.
They essentially ceased flying throughout the two-minute totality; just one buzz was recorded among all 16 monitoring locations.
“As we found, complete darkness elicits the same practice in bees, regardless of timing or context,” Galen explained. “And that’s new information about bee cognition.”
North America’s next total solar eclipse is set for April 8, 2024—when researchers hope to conduct another experiment, this time using audio-analysis software to answer the question of whether bees return home when the “lights go out.”
“The total solar eclipse was a complete crowd-pleaser, and it was great fun to hitch bee research to its tidal wave of enthusiasm,” Galen said, positive she’ll be able to find willing citizen scientists to help in five years.
There are only 600 million years left to experience a total solar eclipse. But if you missed the 2017 phenomenon, Google released an Eclipse Megamovie featuring crowdsourced images of the event. Read more about eclipses—solar and lunar—here.
* Sorry not sorry for my hilarious pun