There may be lightning brewing in every swarm of insects.

Electrical charges are everywhere, both positive and negative ones. Opposite charges pull on each other; similar charges push each other away.

While those forces often go unnoticed, they can have outsize effects on small animals and plants.

Honeybees collect a positive charge as their wings rub against molecules in the air; they use it to attract negatively charged pollen. Bees can also detect and modify the electric fields of flowers.

Spiders spin negatively charged webs that reach out to trap positively charged insects. Positively charged hummingbirds pull negatively charged plant stamens toward their beaks.

The ecosystem is buzzing with electricity, albeit on a tiny scale.

But in aggregate, it's less tiny than previously thought. A new study found that when insects like honeybees and locusts gather in swarms, the individual charges in each creature combined to form electrical fields in the atmosphere as strong as those created by thunderstorms.

The trillions of tiny bodies that electrify the air could help explain basic weather events, like the formation of clouds, and fill in a picture of the complex environment around us.

The researchers - led by Ellard Hunting, a biologist at the University of Bristol, and Giles Harrison, a meteorologist at the University of Reading, both in England - said that locust plagues, which can contain billions of insects over hundreds of square miles, affect the electrical field of the atmosphere as much as lightning storms do.

The world around us, Dr. Huntington said, is all electrically connected, a network of the living and the lifeless, the small and large scales. [Oliver Whang].


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