Bees Across America Stopped Buzzing During Last Year's Total Solar Eclipse

iStock.com/mafrmcfa
iStock.com/mafrmcfa

Most bees are diurnal creatures, meaning that they're active during daylight hours. After flying around all day, they start to slow down around dusk and return to their colonies at night to sleep.

Considering that daylight plays an important role in a bee's busy schedule, would a total solar eclipse thwart their plans? Would the bees think it's time to turn in for the night when the Moon passes in front of the Sun and blocks out its light? These are the questions researchers from the University of Missouri set out to answer when they tracked bee activity during the last total solar eclipse on August 21, 2017.

Their findings, published today in the Annals of the Entomological Society of America, yielded some surprises. Lead author Candace Galen said they expected to see bee activity gradually diminish as the sky darkened. "But we had not expected that the change would be so abrupt, that bees would continue flying up until totality [of the eclipse] and only then stop, completely," Galen said in a statement. "It was like 'lights out' at summer camp! That surprised us."

Of the 16 locations they tracked, only one bee was heard flying during the eclipse. This is one of the first studies to analyze how bees respond to a solar eclipse, and few studies like this have looked at similar behavior in other insects or animals. A 1991 study found that desert cicadas in Arizona stopped chirping for about 40 minutes during a partial solar eclipse. Another study from 1973 found that captive squirrels became restless and ran around far more during an eclipse, while other research showed that Blue bulls at a zoo in India altered their feeding and resting periods during a partial solar eclipse.

Before the latest bee study kicked off, researchers used tiny microphones and temperature sensors to track bee pollination by listening to them buzz about. That same method was applied to the solar eclipse experiment, and 16 monitoring stations were set up along the eclipse's path of totality in Oregon, Idaho, and Missouri. More than 400 scientists, citizens, and elementary school teachers and students assisted with the experiment.

The microphones were hung on flowers that bees had pollinated in semi-remote locations away from foot and vehicle traffic. After the eclipse, the recordings were sent off to Galen's lab, where researchers matched up flight activity with the different eclipse periods. In doing so, it was discovered that bees (mostly bumble and honey bees) kept flying during the partial-eclipse phases before and after the total eclipse. Practically no buzzing was recorded during the period of totality, save for one flight picked up by microphones.

Researchers also noticed that bees' flights were longer during those partial-eclipse phases, but they were likely slower flights as a result of the reduced light. They may have been returning to their hives, believing that it was time to rest, researchers suggested.

"The eclipse gave us an opportunity to ask whether the novel environmental context—mid-day, open skies—would alter the bees' behavioral response to dim light and darkness," Galen said. "As we found, complete darkness elicits the same behavior in bees, regardless of timing or context. And that's new information about bee cognition."

The next total solar eclipse in North America will take place on April 8, 2024, at which time Galen's team plans to do a second experiment. The researchers hope to improve their audio-analysis software to determine whether a bee is leaving or returning to its colony. That way, they'll be able to tell whether bees head home during a total eclipse.

Bizarre New Giant Salamander Species Discovered in Florida

There’s something in the water in Florida, but it’s not the swamp monster locals may have feared. According to National Geographic, scientists have discovered a new species of giant salamander called a reticulated siren, and you can find the 2-foot-long amphibian in the swamps of southern Alabama and the Florida panhandle.

Locals have long reported seeing a creature with leopard-like spots, the body of an humongous eel, and axolotl-like frills sprouting out of the sides of its head, but its existence wasn’t described in scientific literature until now. Researchers from Texas and Georgia recently published their findings in the journalPLOS ONE.

“It was basically this mythical beast,” David Steen, a wildlife ecologist and one of the paper’s co-authors, tells National Geographic. He had been trapping turtles at the Eglin Air Force Base in Okaloosa County, Florida, in 2009 when he caught one of the creatures by chance. After that encounter, the researchers set out to find more specimens.

Colloquially, locals have long been calling the creature a leopard eel. Because the reticulated siren only has two tiny front limbs, it's easy to mistake it for an eel. Its hind limbs disappeared throughout the course of millions of years of evolution, and it also lacks eyelids and has a beak instead of the teeth that are typical of other salamander species.

They belong to a genus of salamanders called sirens, which are one of the largest types of salamander in the world. The second part of the species’ name comes from the reticulated pattern seen on all of the individuals that were examined by researchers. The reticulated siren is also one of the largest vertebrates to be formally described by scientists in the U.S. in the last 100 years, according to the paper.

There are still a lot of unknowns about the reticulated siren. They lead hidden lives below the surface of the water, and they’re thought to subsist on insects and mollusks. Researchers say further study is urgently needed because there's a chance the species could be endangered.

[h/t National Geographic]

A Dracula Ant's Jaws Snap at 200 Mph—Making It the Fastest Animal Appendage on the Planet

Ant Lab, YouTube
Ant Lab, YouTube

As if Florida’s “skull-collecting” ants weren’t terrifying enough, we’re now going to be having nightmares about Dracula ants. A new study in the journal Royal Society Open Science reveals that a species of Dracula ant (Mystrium camillae), which is found in Australia and Southeast Asia, can snap its jaws shut at speeds of 90 meters per second—or the rough equivalent of 200 mph. This makes their jaws the fastest part of any animal on the planet, researchers said in a statement.

These findings come from a team of three researchers that includes Adrian Smith, who has also studied the gruesome ways that the skull-collecting ants (Formica archboldi) dismember trap-jaw ants, which were previously considered to be the fastest ants on record. But with jaw speeds of just over 100 miles per hour, they’re no match for this Dracula ant. (Fun fact: The Dracula ant subfamily is named after their habit of drinking the blood of their young through a process called "nondestructive cannibalism." Yikes.)

Senior author Andrew Suarez, of the University of Illinois, said the anatomy of this Dracula ant’s jaw is unusual. Instead of closing their jaws from an open position, which is what trap-jaw ants do, they use a spring-loading technique. The ants “press the tips of their mandibles together to build potential energy that is released when one mandible slides across the other, similar to a human finger snap,” researchers write.

They use this maneuver to smack other arthropods or push them away. Once they’re stunned, they can be dragged back to the Dracula ant’s nest, where the unlucky victims will be fed to Dracula ant larvae, Suarez said.

Researchers used X-ray imaging to observe the ants’ anatomy in three dimensions. High-speed cameras were also used to record their jaws snapping at remarkable speeds, which measure 5000 times faster than the blink of a human eye. Check out the ants in slow-motion in the video below.

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