Fields of flowers

It’s not often that someone presents you with a completely new way of looking at the world around us but that’s what Dr Gregory Sutton did a few weeks ago at a Royal Society Regional Networking Event in Bristol where he is a University Research Fellow funded by the Royal Society. He told us that every flower is a conductor sticking out of the ground which on a sunny day has an electric field around it of the order of 100 volts per metre. Bees can identify the type of flower that they are approaching based on the interaction between this field and the electrostatic field generated around them as they fly. Bees are covered in tiny hairs and he believes that they use these to sense the electric field around them. The next research question that he is tackling is how bees are affected by the anthropogenic electric fields from power lines, mobile phones etc.

The plots of the electric field around a flower really caught my attention. You can see one in the thumbnail photo. I walked across Brandon Hill in Bristol after the talk to meet a former PhD student for dinner. I kept stopping on the way to try to detect this field with the hairs on the back of my hand. It was a beautiful sunny day but I was not sensitive enough to feel anything. Or maybe I was sensing it but my brain is not programmed to recognise the sensation. We discussed it over dinner and marvelled at the bees’ ability to process the information from its multiple sensors in the light of our knowledge of the computing power required to handle what it is fashionable to call ‘Big Data’ from man-made sensors.

Once again Nature humbles us with its ingenuity and makes our efforts look clumsy if not feeble. Dr Sutton’s insights have given me a whole new way to attempt to connect with Nature while I am on deep vacation.

Sorry about the pun in the title. I couldn’t resist it.


Clarke D, Whitney H, Sutton G & Robert D, Detection and Learning of Floral Electric Fields by Bumblebee, Science, 5 April 2013: 66-69. [DOI:10.1126/science.1230883].

6 thoughts on “Fields of flowers

  1. Peter Goodhew

    By coincidence, bees feature in new literature this year. Laline Paull’s first novel The Bees was an interesting read (and is doing well commercially). However I found it tantalising, as an engineer, because I did not know (nor could deduce) how much of the bee behaviour was genuine and how much was fictional. It seems from Eann’s latest posting that more might be real behaviour than I had suspected. The book did not do very well in The Waverton Good Read this year, not even making the long list (check it out at

  2. eannpatterson Post author

    Yes, it was coincidence. However, while on my deep vacation with my family, we read the books shortlisted for the Baileys’ Women’s Prize for Fiction 2015, which includes Laline Paull’s book entitled ‘Bees’. For me, Paull’s book was in the top three along with Ali Smith’s ‘How to be both’, which was initially not straightforward but worth the effort, and Rachel Cusk’s ‘Outline’. Our family jury is still out on the winner but the official judges chose Ali Smith’s novel. []

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