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Study: Bees Went Silent During Total Solar Eclipse

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On August 21, 2017, millions of people across America stopped what they were doing to observe a total solar eclipse.

But a new study suggests humans were not the only living beings who took a break from their usual activities during this historic event.

A total solar eclipse happens when the sun, moon and Earth perfectly line up. Last year's total solar eclipse was the first one in 99 years to pass over parts of the whole United States.

A crowd gathers in front of the Hollywood sign at the Griffith Observatory to watch the solar eclipse in Los Angeles on Monday, Aug. 21, 2017. (AP Photo/Richard Vogel)
A crowd gathers in front of the Hollywood sign at the Griffith Observatory to watch the solar eclipse in Los Angeles on Monday, Aug. 21, 2017. (AP Photo/Richard Vogel)

The new study found that bees went silent when within the path of totality of the solar eclipse. The results were recently published in the Annals of the Entomological Society of America.

The research was led by Candace Galen, a professor of biological sciences at the University of Missouri. She found there was a lot of interest leading up to the eclipse by people wondering how different animals might behave.

"It seemed as if everyone and their dog was asking me what animals would do during a total eclipse,' Galen said in a statement.

Scientists had previously observed behavioral reactions in some animals during solar eclipses. These have included some forms of sea life, birds, antelope and cattle. But very few studies specifically examined the behavior of insects during a solar eclipse, and none had dealt with bees.

Bees are important for the growth of wild and agricultural plants. They help spread the substances that make it possible for flowers to reproduce through the process known as pollination.

Before the eclipse, Galen and her team had been field testing a system to examine bee pollination activities. The system used listening devices placed in nature to measure buzzing sounds. The buzzing is caused by movements in the bees' wing muscles during flight.

Bumble bees inspect and pollinate a sunflower on a Gaddis Farms field in Bolton, Miss., Friday, July 13, 2018. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
Bumble bees inspect and pollinate a sunflower on a Gaddis Farms field in Bolton, Miss., Friday, July 13, 2018. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

Galen said she thought "it seemed like a perfect fit" to use those same methods to look at bee behaviors during an eclipse.

The researchers organized a team of about 400 citizen scientists and elementary schoolchildren in different areas of the country to help with the experiment. The teams were deployed to areas in three U.S. states – Oregon, Idaho and Missouri. The three states represent different kinds of geology and climate.

Very small microphones were hidden among the natural environment to capture buzzing sounds as bees flew from flower to flower. In some areas, light and temperature information was also collected.

The sounds were then examined to measure the level of activity before, during and after the solar eclipse. In recordings taken during the totality part of the eclipse, researchers heard almost complete silence. "Only one buzz interrupted the quiet," the study said.

In this Tuesday, Sept. 1, 2015 photo, a bee works atop Gift Zinnia at Hudson Valley Seed Library in Accord, N.Y. (AP Photo/Mike Groll)
In this Tuesday, Sept. 1, 2015 photo, a bee works atop Gift Zinnia at Hudson Valley Seed Library in Accord, N.Y. (AP Photo/Mike Groll)

However, during partial stages of the eclipse, 90 percent of the microphones recorded buzzing. This meant there was still widespread bee activity before and after the total solar eclipse. The researchers said there was some slowing of activity immediately before and after totality.

Changes in light affect the bee's ability to see and find food sources and carry out pollination activities. Drops in temperature make it difficult for them to keep their bodies warm enough to fly.

Galen said results of the study were in keeping with normal bee behavior. Bees commonly fly more slowly when the sun goes down and return to their colonies at night. But what did surprise researchers was how quickly the bees went silent during totality.

"We had not expected that the change would be so abrupt, that bees would continue flying up until totality and only then stop, completely," Galen said. "It was like 'lights out' at summer camp! That surprised us."

I'm Bryan Lynn.

Bryan Lynn wrote this story for VOA Learning English. Hai Do was the editor.

We want to hear from you. Write to us in the Comments section, and visit our Facebook page.

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Words in This Story

pollination n. the process of moving a very fine dust that is produced by a plant for reproduction to another plant

buzzing n. the sound a bee makes when it flies

geology n. the study of rocks and soil and the physical structure of the earth

interrupt v. to stop an action or activity, usually for a short period of time

stage n. a period of development in a process

abrupt adj. sudden and not expected

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