Bees stopped buzzing during the Great American Eclipse | Science News for Students

Bees stopped buzzing during the Great American Eclipse

A rare study of pollinators finds the insects responded to total darkness
Dec 4, 2018 — 6:45 am EST
a zoomed in photo of a bee sitting on a fuzzy green and white plant against a black background

During the 2017 solar eclipse over the United States, citizen scientists recorded bee sounds to help researchers find out what the insects did when the day suddenly plunged into darkness. 

Susan Ellis,

On August 21, 2017, crowds of people across the United States gathered to watch the moon pass before the sun. As the moon’s shadow passed directly overhead — totality — the sky went dark. And bees noticed.

People had set out microphones in flower patches at 11 sites in the path of the eclipse. The microphones picked up the buzzing sounds of bees flying among blooms. But those sounds were noticeably absent during the short period of the full solar blackout, a new study finds.

Before totality, light dimmed. The air also cooled a bit. This didn’t appear to affect the bees, however. Only the deep darkness of totality did. At that point, the buzzing shut down. Researchers described this buzz-out October 10 in the Annals of the Entomological Society of America. The change in buzzing at the time of totality was abrupt, notes Candace Galen. She is an ecologist at the University of Missouri in Columbia and author of the study.

The recordings come from citizen scientists, mostly school classes. They set out small microphones at two spots in Oregon, one in Idaho and eight in Missouri. Often when bees went silent at the peak of the eclipse, Galen says, “you can hear the people in the background going ‘ooo,’ ‘ahh’ or clapping.”

a field of clover with a fluffy white microphone tied to a stake to the right
This fluffy white lump is a microphone that is protected from wind noise in a clover patch. Citizen scientists set up microphones like this one to record the bees buzzing, or not, at 11 U.S. sites during the 2017 eclipse.
C. Galen/Univ. of Missouri

There’s no entirely reliable way (yet) of telling what types of bees had been buzzing, based only on their sounds, Galen says. She estimates that the Missouri sites had a lot of bumblebees. The Western sites had more of the tinier, temperature-fussy Megachile bees. 

The temperature plunge in the Missouri summer just “made things feel a little more comfortable,” Galen recalls. But in the West, temperatures dropped by at least 10 degrees Celsius (18 degrees Fahrenheit).

As far as Galen knows, these buzz recordings gives the first formal data published on bees during a solar eclipse. “Insects are remarkably neglected,” she says. “Everybody wants to know what their dog and cat are doing during the eclipse. But they don't think about the flea.”

Power Words

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citizen science     Scientific research in which the public — people of all ages and abilities — participate. The data that these citizen “scientists” Scientific research in which the public — people of all ages and abilities — participate. The data that these citizen “scientists” collect helps to advance research. Letting the public participate means that scientists can get data from many more people and places than would be available if they were working alone.

data     Facts and/or statistics collected together for analysis but not necessarily organized in a way that gives them meaning. For digital information (the type stored by computers), those data typically are numbers stored in a binary code, portrayed as strings of zeros and ones.

eclipse     This occurs when two celestial bodies line up in space so that one totally or partially obscures the other. In a solar eclipse, the sun, moon and Earth line up in that order. The moon casts its shadow on the Earth. From Earth, it looks like the moon is blocking out the sun. In a lunar eclipse, the three bodies line up in a different order — sun, Earth, moon — and the Earth casts its shadow on the moon, turning the moon a deep red.

ecology      A branch of biology that deals with the relations of organisms to one another and to their physical surroundings. A scientist who works in this field is called an ecologist.

insect     A type of arthropod that as an adult will have six segmented legs and three body parts: a head, thorax and abdomen. There are hundreds of thousands of insects, which include bees, beetles, flies and moths.

moon     The natural satellite of any planet.

solar eclipse     An event in which the moon passes between the Earth and sun and obscures the sun, at least partially. In a total solar eclipse, the moon appears to cover the entire sun, revealing on the outer layer, the corona. If you were to view an eclipse from space, you would see the moon’s shadow traveling in a line across the surface of the Earth.

sun     The star at the center of Earth’s solar system. It’s an average size star about 26,000 light-years from the center of the Milky Way galaxy. Also a term for any sunlike star.

totality     (in astronomy) The brief period during an eclipse when one object totally obscures another. For a solar eclipse (when viewed from Earth), this would be when the moon appears to completely block out the sun’s light.


Journal:​ C. Galen et al. Publication on the dark side: Acoustic monitoring reveals impacts of total solar eclipse on flight behavior and activity schedule of foraging bees. Annals of the Entomological Society of America. Published online October 10, 2018. doi:10.1093/aesa/say035.