Electrostatic sight over the insect world

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Electrostatic effects on nature are so ubiquitous that they commonly play tricks on us: restyling our hair like a porcupine’s, emitting “firefly” flashes while we put on clothes, dusting our computer screens, sticking book pages and even producing a painful electric shock after a handshake. These amusing experiences, however, can sometimes turn into serious danger; sparks produced by an electrostatic discharge, for example, can instantly cause fires and explosions in warehouses, gas stations or silos.

Curiously, as we strive to achieve smaller electronic components to satisfy our modern necessities, we are innocently entering electrostatic domains. Millions of dollars are lost each year due to electrostatic damage to microelectronic devices, and the scenario seems even worse with the advent of nanotechnology. Scale matters — simply because electric forces are stronger at a closer distance.

Immanuel Kant used to think that our senses are similar to a fishnet that is thrown into the universe to catch its secrets, but due to mesh size, some fish will pass through, inevitably escaping our knowledge. This way of thought could be perfectly applied to our perception of the electrostatic phenomena at small scales, because our senses are practically useless in detecting electric fields. Perhaps due to these limitations, it took a long time to see the important role electrostatics plays on the daily routines of small animals, like insects.

Surprisingly, recent experimental observations have revealed that insects have superb abilities to sense electric fields and to experience effects that we never imagined. Those discoveries definitely challenge our perception of how the natural world works. Specifically, two different studies suggest, respectively, that electrically charged bees could sense electric fields for their own benefit during foraging by detecting floral electric fields as well as for social communication by using antennae as electrical receptors. In contrast, a third study revealed an unexpected dark side: Electrically charged bees, flies and aphid can attract the sticky thread of a neutral spiderweb up to a body length, increasing their own risk of capture. What these studies show together is that electrostatics plays a major role on insect’s life and, by extension, the lives of most small animals — but with two sides of the same coin.

Those astonishing revelations, however, are just the tip of the iceberg, making us dream of an underworld waiting to be discovered. With this in mind, the relationship between electrostatics and animals seems to be a fertile ground for new interdisciplinary research.

In my case, I am curious to see whether electrostatic forces affect insects’ flight performance, as they can easily acquire a charge by the friction of their wings against the air. But first of all, I am planning to continue studying the effects of charged insects on spider webs — this time in the wild — and to explore whether electrostatics increases the deposition rates of small particles, like pollen, dust or ashes on radial silk threads and the influence, if any, on web replacement. Orb-web spiders, insects and the electrostatic phenomena surely still have many things to say, because they have been interacting for hundreds of millions of years. But we just need to be patient and stay in the right place with the correct setup, and with some luck, we may hear them express their electrical wonders — at least one more time.

Victor Ortega is a UC Berkeley postdoctoral fellow. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected]