Insects can electrify the air as much as a thunderstorm

(ORDO NEWS) — A new study of the influence of flying insects on atmospheric electric fields has shown that the flapping of many tiny wings can electrify the air in much the same way that swirling clouds of water vapor can charge the air inside a thundercloud.

This does not mean that we should worry about the biblical disasters of lightning-shooting locusts, but it may indicate the need to take into account biological phenomena when modeling local patterns in the electric field of the atmosphere.

During a storm, small ice particles rising into the air rub against larger pieces that fall to the ground, creating a kind of conveyor belt of charges that increase the potential difference between the top of the clouds, the bottom of the clouds and the ground.

As soon as the potential difference reaches a critical point, ionized channels are formed and the balance is effectively equalized in the form of lightning.

“We’ve always looked at how physics affects biology, but at some point we realized that biology can also affect physics,” said first author Ellard Hunting, a biologist at the University of Bristol in the UK.

“We are interested in how various organisms use static electric fields that are present almost everywhere in the environment.”

In recent years, it has become clear that insects and other invertebrates can carry charges that create a tiny potential compared to the surrounding atmosphere. For example, baby spiders can even use this trick to fly into the sky.

But how this tiny potential builds up in swarms of insects has never been measured. So Hunting and his team went to the University of Bristol School of Veterinary Science field station to wait for one of their many honey bee colonies to swarm.

Using an electric field monitor and a camera to monitor bee density, the researchers tracked the local potential gradient of the swarm along the way. Within 3 minutes, the insects swept past, raising the potential gradient overhead to 100 volts per meter.

Later analysis confirmed that stress was related to swarm concentration, allowing the researchers to predict with reasonable certainty how a given number of bees buzzing in a given area of ​​air would affect the charge in the atmosphere.

Knowing that their scores were consistent with testing on bees, the team applied the same rationale to other insects that form swarms.

Taking individual locust charges, the researchers calculated that a sizable locust swarm could generate charges at a density no different from that produced during a thunderstorm .

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