The total solar eclipse of 2017 was an incredible spectacle seen by millions of people across America. But humans weren’t the only ones that stopped what they were doing during this phenomenon. Bees across the US also took a break from working – and they did so all of a sudden.
The eclipse provided an opportunity for many scientists to study animal behavior during an eclipse. This is the first study published on how bees’ behavior is affected during an eclipse. As reported in the Annals of the Entomological Society of America, researchers had citizen scientists and elementary school classrooms set up acoustic monitoring stations to record the buzzing of bees, a method that had previously successfully monitored bee pollination. On August 21, 2017, the 16 stations set up in Oregon, Idaho, and Missouri all recorded the same thing: the bees stopped working.
"We anticipated, based on the smattering of reports in the literature, that bee activity would drop as light dimmed during the eclipse, and would reach a minimum at totality [the darkest period]," lead author Dr Candace Galen, 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. It was like 'lights out' at summer camp! That surprised us."
Bees tend to fly more slowly as night falls, and they are usually back in their hives by the time it gets dark. In the monitoring stations, the scientists recorded bees being active during the partial eclipse phases, but only a single solitary bee was detected between all 16 stations buzzing during totality. Interestingly the researchers report that the bees were still active just before and just after totality but their flights tended to be longer, indicating they slowed down. This suggests that they were responding to environmental cues, like light, although it's not clear if they flew back to their hive or just stopped buzzing wherever they were during the eclipse.
"The eclipse gave us an opportunity to ask whether the novel environmental context – mid-day, open skies – would alter the bees' behavioral response to dim light and darkness," Dr Galen said. "As we found, complete darkness elicits the same behavior in bees, regardless of timing or context. And that's new information about bee cognition."
Plus, "The total solar eclipse was a complete crowd-pleaser, and it was great fun to hitch bee research to its tidal wave of enthusiasm," she added.
The next total solar eclipse to cross North America will be on April 8, 2024, and the team is preparing a more sophisticated audio analysis to investigate bee behavior in more detail. Given this first important contribution, we're sure they’ll find plenty of people willing to help.