Bumblebee hairs as electric and air motion sensors: theoretical analysis of an isolated hair

K. Koh, D. Robert

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

2 Citations (Scopus)
45 Downloads (Pure)


Foraging bumblebees are electrically charged. Charge accumulation has been proposed to enable their ability to detect and react to electrical cues. One mechanism suggested for bumblebee electro-sensing is the inter-action between external electric fields and electric charges accumulating on fine hairs on the cuticular body. Such hairs exhibit several functional adaptations, for example, thermal insulation, pollen capture and notably, the sensing of air motion such as flow currents or low frequency sound particle velocity. Both air motion and electric fields are ubiquitous in the sensory ecology of terrestrial arthropods, raising the question as to whether cuticular hairs respond to both stimuli. Here, a model-theoretical approach is taken to investigate the capacity of bumblebee filiform hairs as electric sensors and compare it to their response to air motion. We find that oscillating air motion and electric fields generate different mechanical responses, depending on stimulus frequency and body geometry. Further, hair morphology can enhance one sensing mode over the other; specifically, higher surface area favours electric sensitivity. Assuming a maximum stable charge on the hair that is limited only by electric breakdown of air, it is expected that an applied oscillating electric field strength of∼300 Vm−1produces comparable mechanical response on the hair as a 35 mms−1air flow oscillating at 130 Hz25- an air disturbance signal similar to that produced by wingbeats of insects within a few bodylengths of the bumblebee. This analysis reveals that bumblebee filiform hairs can operate as bi-modal sensors, responding to both oscillating electric and air motion stimuli in the context of ecologically relevant scenarios
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages9
JournalJournal of the Royal Society Interface
Issue number168
Publication statusPublished - 8 Jul 2020


  • electroreceptor
  • air flow
  • mechanoreceptor
  • electrostatics


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