While millions of Americans took a break from their daily routines for the August 21, 2017, total solar eclipse, they might not have noticed a similar phenomenon happening nearby: In the path of totality, bees took a break from their daily routines, too.
To study the solar eclipse’s influence on bee behavior, researchers at the University of Missouri organized a cadre of citizen scientists and elementary school classrooms in setting up acoustic monitoring stations to listen in on bees’ buzzing — or lack thereof — as the 2017 eclipse passed over. The results, published October 10, 2018, in the peer-reviewed journal Annals of the Entomological Society of America, were clear and consistent at locations across the country: Bees stopped flying during the period of total solar eclipse.
We anticipated, based on the smattering of reports in the literature, that bee activity would drop as light dimmed during the eclipse and would reach a minimum at totality. 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. It was like ‘lights out’ at summer camp! That surprised us.
Galen said that, as anticipation mounted for the eclipse,
… it seemed as if everyone and their dog was asking me what animals would do during a total eclipse.
However, few formal studies had ever examined the behavior of insects, specifically, during a solar eclipse, and none had looked at bees. Galen and colleagues, meanwhile, had recently field-tested a system to track bee pollination remotely by listening for their flight buzzes in soundscape recordings. Galen said:
It seemed like the perfect fit. The tiny microphones and temperature sensors could be placed near flowers hours before the eclipse, leaving us free to put on our fancy glasses and enjoy the show.
The project engaged more than 400 participants — including scientists, members of the public, and elementary school teachers and students — in setting up 16 monitoring stations in the path of totality in Oregon, Idaho and Missouri. At each location, small USB microphones were hung on lanyards near bee-pollinated flowers in areas away from foot and vehicle traffic. In some of the locations, light and temperature data were also captured. Participants then sent the devices to Galen’s lab, where the recordings were matched up with the eclipse periods from each location and analyzed for the number and duration of bee flight buzzes.
The data showed that bees remained active during the partial-eclipse phases both before and after totality, but they essentially ceased flying during the period of totality. Just one buzz was recorded during totality in all of the 16 monitoring locations. However, shortly before and shortly after totality, bee flights tended to be longer in duration than at times early in the pre-totality phase and late in post-totality. Galen and colleagues interpret these longer flight durations as an indicator of slower flight under reduced light or possibly as the bees returning to their nests.
Another total solar eclipse for North America is not far away: April 8, 2024. Galen says her team is working to enhance its audio-analysis software to distinguish the flights that foraging bees make when they leave or return to their colonies. Thus prepared, she hopes to answer the question of whether bees return home when the “lights go out” at totality in 2024.
Bottom line: A study says that bees stopped flying during the August 2017 total solar eclipse.
Eleanor Imster has helped write and edit EarthSky since 1995. She was an integral part of the award-winning EarthSky radio series almost since it began until it ended in 2013. Today, as Lead Editor at EarthSky.org, she helps present the science and nature stories and photos you enjoy. She also serves as one of the voices of EarthSky on social media platforms including Facebook, Twitter and G+. She and her husband live in Tennessee and have two grown sons.