Static electric fields are common throughout the environment and this has been known for some time (e.g Lund (1929) and back in 1918, the great Jean-Henri Fabre, writing about the dung beetle, Geotrupes stated “They seem to be influenced above all by the electric tension of the atmosphere. On hot and sultry evenings, when a storm is brewing, I see them moving about even more than usual. The morrow is always marked by violent claps of thunder”
Given this, it is surprising that it was not until the 1960s that entomologists started to take a real interest in electroperception, when a Canadian entomologist decided to investigate the phenomenon further, but using flies (Edwards, 1960). He found that if Drosophila melanogaster and Calliphora vicina exposed to, but not in contact with, an electrical field, they stopped moving. Calliphora vicina needed a stronger voltage to elicit a response than D. melanogaster, which perhaps could be related to their relative sizes. It seemed that their movement was reduced when electrical charge applied and changed, but not if the field was constant.
Responses of two fly species to electrical fields (From Edwards, 1960)
In a follow up experiment with the the Geometrid moth Nepytia phantasmaria he showed that females were less likely to lay eggs when exposed to electrical fields (Edwards, 1961), but the replication was very low and the conditions under which the experiment was run were not very realistic.
In the same year, Maw (1961) working on the Ichneumonid wasp, Itoplectis conquisitor, which is attracted to light, put ten females into a chamber with a light at one end but with parts of the floor charged at different levels. The poor wasps were strongly attracted to the light but the electrical ‘barrier’ slowed them down; the stronger the charge, the greater the reluctance to enter the field.
On the other hand, some years later, working with the housefly, Musca domestica and the cabbage looper, Trichoplusia ni, across a range of different strength electrical fields, Perumpral et al., (1978) found no consistent avoidance patterns in where the houseflies preferred to settle, but did find that wing beat frequency of male looper moths was significantly affected, although inconsistently. Female moths on the other hand were not significantly affected. This put paid to their intention to develop a non-chemical control method for these two pests.
A more promising results was obtained using the cockroach Periplaneta americana. Christopher Jackson and colleagues at Southampton University showed that the cockroaches turned away, or were repulsed, when they encountered an electric field and if continuously exposed to one, walked more slowly, turned more often and covered less distance (Jackson et al., 2011). As an aside, this is similar to the effects one of my PhD students found when she exposed carabid beetles exposed to sub-lethal applications of the insecticide dimethoate*.
Periplaneta americana definitely showing a reluctance to cross an electrical field (Jackson et al., 2011).
Other insect orders have also been shown to respond to electric fields. Ants, in particular the fire ant, Solenopsis invicta, are apparently a well-known hazard to electrical fittings (MacKay et al., 1992), and a number of species have been found in telephone receivers (Eagleson, 1940), light fittings and switches (Little, 1984), and even televisions (Jolivet, 1986), causing short circuits and presumably, coming to untimely ends 🙂
Rosanna Wijenberg and colleagues at Simon Fraser University in Canada, really went to town and tested the responses of a variety of different insect pests to electric fields. They found that the common earwig, Forficula auricularia, two cockroaches, Blatta germanica, Supella longipalpa, two Thysanurans, the silverfish, Lepisma saccharina and the firebrat Thermobia domestica were attracted to, or at least arrested by electrified coils. Periplaneta americana, on the other hand, was repulsed (Wijenberg et al., 2013). They suggested that using electrified coils as non-toxic baits might be an environmentally friendly method of domestic pest control. I have, however, not been able to find any commercial applications of this idea although perhaps you know better?
Although a number of marine vertebrates generate electricity and electric fields as well as perceiving and communicate using them, there was, until fairly recently, no evidence of electrocommunication within the insect world (Bullock, 1999); after all, they have pheromones 😊
When we look at the interaction between insects and electromagnetic fields there is growing evidence that bees, or at least honey bees, like some birds (Mouritsen et al., 2016) have the wherewithal and ability to navigate using magnetic fields (Lambinet et al., 2017ab). Interestingly**, honeybees, Apis mellifera have been shown to generate their own electrical fields during their waggle dances which their conspecifics are able to detect (Greggers et al., 2013). Bumble bees (Bombus terrestris), have also been shown to be able to detect electrical fields. In this case, those surrounding individual plants. The bees use the presence or absence of an electrical charge to ‘decide’ whether to visit flowers or not. If charged they are worth visiting, the charge being built up by visitation rates of other pollinating insects (Clarke et al., 2013)
Since I’m on bees, I can’t leave this topic without mentioning mobile phones and electromagnetic radiation, although it really deserves an article of its own. The almost ubiquitous presence of mobile phones has for a long time raised concern about the effect that their prolonged use and consequent exposure of their users to electromagnetic radiation in terms of cancer and other health issues (Simkó & Mattson, 2019). Although there is growing evidence that some forms of human cancer can be linked to their use (e.g. Mialon & Nesson, 2020), the overall picture is far from clear (Kim et al., 2016). Given the ways in which bees navigate and the concerns about honeybee populations it is not surprising that some people suggested that electromagnetic radiation as well as neonicitinoids might be responsible for the various ills affecting commercial bee hives (Sharma & Kumar, 2010, Favre, 2011). The evidence is far from convincing (Carreck, 2014) although a study from Greece looking at the intensity of electromagnetic radiation from mobile phone base stations on the abundance of pollinators found that the abundance of beetles, wasps and most hoverflies decreased with proximity to the base stations, but conversely, the abundance of bee-flies and underground nesting wild bees increased, while butterflies were unaffected (Lázaro et al., 2016). A more recent study has shown that exposure to mobile phones resulted in increased pupal mortality in honeybee queens but did not affect their mating success (Odemer & Odemer, 2019). All in all, the general consensus is that although laboratory studies show that electromagnetic radiation can affect insect behaviour and reproduction the picture remains unclear and that there are few, if any field-based studies that provide reliable evidence one way or the other (Vanbergen et al., 2019). Much more research is needed before we can truly quantify the likely impacts of electromagnetic radiation on pollinators and insects in general.
I must confess that I had never really thought about insect electroperception until I was at a conference and came across a poster on the subject by Matthew Wheelwright, then an MRes student at the University of Bristol, so it is only fair to dedicate this to him.
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yet another entry for my data I am never going to publish series 😊
My wife really hates it when I start a sentence like this, as she says “You’re always starting sentences like that and it is rarely interesting”