How bees reacted to the 2017 solar eclipse

In a pitch black sky, the moon passes in front of the sun, giving the moon a halo of bright white light.
In a pitch black sky, the moon passes in front of the sun, giving the moon a halo of bright white light.
Image: Moon: AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley; Bee: Reuters/Toby Melville; Illustration: Quartz
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As the 2017 solar eclipse darkened the skies across the United States, humans rejoiced while flamingos huddled, crickets chirped, and, according to a new study, bees fell silent.

For a study published today in the Annals of the Entomological Society of America, a team of researchers recruited volunteers from 11 sites across the country that fell in the path of totality of the eclipse. The morning of the eclipse, those volunteers—many of whom were elementary-school students and their teachers—set up itsy-bitsy microphones above plants known to be attractive to bees, like sunflowers, thistle, and goldenbush.

Bees buzz because of the way their anatomy works during flight, and so, by analyzing buzz duration, the researchers were able to get a sense of the bees’ movement throughout the eclipse. Bees at the 11 research sites were buzzing before and after totality—14 of the 16 mics picked up at least one buzz every few minutes. But the bees were nearly silent as the moon blotted out the sun. The researchers reported just a single buzz in the three minutes of totality across the 16 mics.

Because background noise obscured buzzing at some sites, the researchers wanted to focus on data from sites with consistent buzzing before and after totality to figure out exactly how the bees reacted to the total eclipse of the sun. To do that, researchers randomly selected two three-minute-long clips from each recording station: one from before totality, and one from after. If the site’s before and after clips both contained at least three buzzes, that site was included in the analysis, and researchers listened for buzzes in the 15 minutes before and 15 minutes after totality. In the end, 7 sites qualified, giving researchers a total of 177 buzzes to analyze.

They found that buzz duration decreased as the sky darkened, suggesting that bees in range of the mic were more likely to stay put around the peak of the eclipse. This makes sense, the researchers write, since the darkness would mess with bees’ ability to forage. Other animals have been found to behave like it’s nighttime during an eclipse: spiders take down their webs, and diurnal birds get quiet while nocturnal birds begin to sing.

Another delightful aspect to these results are the fourth- and fifth-grade volunteers’ cartoons about what they observed. The students took just a few liberties in their art, but they were quite good at counting buzzes in recordings: their buzz counts overlapped with the researchers’ at an impressive 91% rate.

And it sounds like the researchers are already gearing up for their next opportunity to collect data. “The next solar eclipse will come through Missouri in 2024,” they write. “We bee chasers, including some promising new recruits, will be ready.”