All the Bees Fell Silent During the Total Solar Eclipse

A total solar eclipse, viewed here in Madras, Oregon, on August 21, 2017, passed through 10 states, with the path of totality moving from the East Coast to the West. During that time all of the bees stopped buzzing. NASA/Aubrey Gemignani

In August last year, parts of the U.S. were plunged into darkness. A total solar eclipse passed through 10 states, with the path of totality moving from the East Coast to the West over the course of the day. During that time something very weird happened—all of the bees stopped buzzing.

Scientists recorded bee activity during the eclipse across 16 different acoustic monitoring stations located in the path of the eclipse. These were set up through via citizen scientists—many of the stations were in elementary schools. Information was recorded on tiny microphones and temperature sensors that were placed near bee-pollinated flowers.

After processing all the data, Candace Galen, from the University of Missouri, and her team discovered that all bees stopped flying at the point of totality.

Scientists expected bee behavior to change during the total solar eclipse—but how much and in what way was unknown. Susan Ellis,

At this time, sunlight levels dropped and the temperature fell by between 10° and 15°C. Scientists expected bee behavior to change during this time—but how much and in what way was unknown. "Because bees in the temperate zone are largely adapted to forage during the day we did expect less flying near flowers during the eclipse," she told Newsweek. "We were surprised that they completely ceased flying!"

Over the 16 stations, only one buzz from one bee was recorded. This bee, apparently, didn't get the memo. "We counted flights at totality in three-minute intervals with the middle of the interval aligned with the middle of totality," Galen explains. "Totality actually lasted from about 40 seconds to 90 seconds depending on location. Perhaps this was just a bee that had an unusual capacity to fly when the lights were very low, but not quite out."

The team, publishing their findings in the Annals of the Entomological Society of America, discovered that bee activity was largely unaffected by the phases before and after totality, but some flights lasted a bit longer than normal.

Galen and the team do not know what the bees were doing during totality: "They may have returned to their hives (honeybees) or nests (bumble bees)," she said. "This was reported anecdotally by beekeepers during a total eclipse in 1932. Or they may have found shelter in flowers as bees do when they can't get back to the nest at night. Many smaller solitary bees actually seem to 'sleep' in flowers overnight."

North America is set to witness another total solar eclipse in April 2024. Galen is now preparing for this—the team hopes to build on the findings by having better audio-analysis software. This should allow them to distinguish the flights bees are making when they are leaving or returning to their colonies—we will then know if they went home for the eclipse. "We hope to learn more about what bees do when they stop buzzing," Galen said. "Do they return to their nest or hive? Do they hunker down in flowers and wait it out? If they return to their nest, do buzzes among returning bees inside the colony resemble buzzes made at night? That is, do they communicate their experience? Stay tuned!"