A Celestial Event Left Bees Speechless

Recordings from tiny microphones showed that the insects stopped buzzing during the 2017 eclipse.

A bee perched on a red flower
Mike Groll / AP

For several minutes last August, a cosmic alignment between the Earth, sun, and moon plunged a narrow slice of the continental United States into near darkness in the middle of the day. As the spectators gathered in the shadow stared up at the sun, now nothing more than a sparkling white ring against a mulberry sky, they marveled at the sight. They shouted, hooted, cheered.

Those were the humans. The bees had a pretty different reaction.

In more than a dozen spots along the path of totality, the cross-country stripe that experienced the full shadow of the moon, bees went silent. As the sunlight disappeared and the air cooled, the insects stopped flying, and the buzzing noise they make during flight ceased. They only resumed their droning when the moon moved out of the alignment and daylight was restored.

The brief pause in activity was quite literally caught on tape. A group of more than 400 volunteers, including scientists, teachers, and students, set up tiny microphones and temperature sensors near flowers in 16 spots across Oregon, Idaho, and Missouri in the path of totality. After the eclipse, the scientists collected the devices and analyzed their data. They can’t tell the types of bees from their buzzing, but participants near the stations said they saw mostly bumblebees and honeybees.

The researchers found that in the minutes before the sunlight disappeared, the bees were active. During the darkness, which lasted about three minutes, nada. The devices recorded just one buzz during totality in all of the monitoring stations.

The bees, it turns out, had reacted to the total solar eclipse as they would to nightfall. On normal days, when their schedule is not interrupted by a burst of midday darkness, bees begin flying more slowly at dusk. As night approaches, the insects return to their colonies to sleep.

The results of the experiment were published Wednesday in the Annals of the Entomological Society of America. Candace Galen, a professor of biological sciences at the University of Missouri and the lead author, said she had expected to detect a drop in activity during the period of the total solar eclipse. Previous literature, from 16th-century observations to modern-day experiments, has suggested that some animals react in noticeable ways to the sudden arrival of darkness.

“But 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 in a statement. “It was like ‘lights out’ at summer camp.”

One of the earliest reports of animal reactions to total solar eclipses came from an Italian monk in 1239. “All the animals and the birds became frightened, and the wild beasts could be captured with ease,” wrote Restoro d’Arezzo, who studied the stars. Later, in 1593, Christopher Clavius, a German astronomer, reported that “the birds fell down from the sky to the ground in terror of such horrid darkness.” Still later, in 1932, observers noted that crickets, frogs, and mosquitoes awakened—“our stockings attested to the bites, for they drew blood and never let up”—while chickens waddled to their coops and bees glided to their hives.

In more recent years, researchers have observed that in response to the sudden darkening of an eclipse, light-dependent marine creatures like zooplankton swim up to the ocean surface and orb-weaving spiders dismantle their webs. During last year’s eclipse, the Nashville Zoo, which fell in the path of totality, reported that their lorikeets, a type of colorful parakeet, didn’t let out a single peep in the darkness. Lightning bugs blinked on. Flamingos left their posts in the water and huddled together in a pack, fidgeting until the darkness lifted. Barn owls, on the other hand, opened their eyes wide and stretched, ready to take on the day. They dozed off again when the light returned.

These animals were not alone in their confusion throughout much of history. We human beings were once baffled and even terrified by the strange spectacle of total solar eclipses. We interpreted them as messages from the heavens, as omens. This was understandable; a total solar eclipse is a truly disorienting experience for all creatures. As Ross Andersen wrote in The Atlantic last year, “What could be more traumatic than the abandonment of the sun? This is the energy source that powers Earth’s photosynthetic food chains, the ball of fire that anchors and warms us as we twirl around in the cold cosmic void. The sun is the giver of life.” Human observers can still be forgiven for shrieking in awe at the sight of a disappeared sun. So can the bees around them, for their silence.