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Bees and their magnetic superpower

11 May 2017

Physics World recently reported the discovery that honey bees appear to sense magnetic fields using particles in their bodies. The findings suggest that bees join the list of animals – including some rodents, birds and reptiles – that use the ability to detect the Earth’s magnetic field to aid navigation. In this podcast, our regular host Andrew Glester catches up with the interdisciplinary research team in Canada to find out more about its work on bee “magnetoreception”. He also visits a beekeeper in the UK to learn more about the physics underpinning bee behaviour

Scientists are aware that many different animals appear sensitive to the Earth’s magnetic field lines. But what is not so well understood are the underlying mechanisms that make navigation possible. In this latest work at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, researchers have identified particles of magnetite – a ferromagnetic material – within the abdomen of honey bees.

In the podcast, Glester speaks with biologist Veronika Lambinet and physicist Michael Hayden who describe the group’s experiments with bees. They describe studying the reaction of live bees exposed to magnetic fields stronger than the Earth’s field. Another experiment involved placing bee body parts within a superconducting quantum interference device (SQUID) to study the magnetization effects.

Glester also meets with Heather Lampard, a science communicator and beekeeper in Bristol, UK, where Andrew and Physics World are based. Clearly a huge admirer of her stripy friends, Lampard gives a crash course in the science of bees, explaining how they detect plants’ electric fields and why honeycombs are hexagonal-shaped. You can watch Lampard explain how bees produce honey, in this video she produced for the Bristol Nature Channel.


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