Oct 11, 2018 - Science

Bees went "lights out" during the 2017 solar eclipse

Bees pollinating

Bees collecting nectar off a flower. Photo: Holger Hollemann/picture alliance via Getty Images

Solar eclipses are viewed as must-see phenomena, but bees don't treat them that way, a study in the Annals of the Entomological Society of America says.

What we're hearing: Nothing. During the 2017 solar eclipse, bees were completely silent. As the full shadow of the moon covered up sunlight, bees stopped buzzing. They resumed activity shortly after the moon's alignment between the Earth and the sun shifted and daylight returned.

The details: This break in action was caught on tape by a group of more than 400 volunteers using tiny microphones and temperature sensors near flowers across 16 locations in Oregon, Idaho and Missouri, all of which were in the path of totality.

Researchers expected to see a change in behavior, said Candace Galen, the lead author and a professor of biological sciences at the University of Missouri, according to a press release. Marina Koren writes in The Atlantic that what was unexpected was the abruptness of the shift.

“It was like ‘lights out’ at summer camp. That surprised us.”
— Candace Galen

How it works: The shift from sunlight to midday darkness triggered night mode in the bees. Bees fly low during dusk and, as it gets closer to night, they return to their colonies to sleep.

Be smart: This reaction from bees is not uncommon. Animals' reactions to eclipses have been recorded for centuries.

  • Ristoro d'Arezzo, an Italian monk, wrote "all the animals and birds were terrified; and the wild beasts could easily be caught," on June 3, 1239.
  • Astronomer Christoph Clavius wrote “stars appeared in the sky and (marvelous to behold) the birds fell down from the sky to the ground in terror of such horrid darkness," on August 21, 1560.

It's nearly impossible to confirm those accounts, but researchers in 1973 observed erratic reactions in captive squirrels. In 1983, Blue Bulls reacted with different feeding, lying and social interaction times.

Now we can add bees to this list.

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