Bumblebees' Little Hairs Can Sense Flowers' Electric Fields

Scientists say bumblebees can sense flowers' electric fields through the bees' fuzzy hairs.

Scientists say bumblebees can sense flowers’ electric fields through the bees’ fuzzy hairs. Jens Meyer/AP hide caption

toggle caption Jens Meyer/AP

Flowers generate weak electric fields, and a new study shows that bumblebees can actually sense those electric fields using the tiny hairs on their fuzzy little bodies.

“The bumblebees can feel that hair bend and use that feeling to tell the difference between flowers,” says Gregory Sutton, a Royal Society University Research Fellow at the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom.

People used to think that perceiving natural electric fields was something that animals only did in water. Sharks and eels can do it, for example. The platypus and spiny anteaters were the only land critters known have electroreceptive organs, but these have to be submerged in water in order to work.

Then, a few years ago, Sutton and his colleagues showed that bumblebees could sense electric fields in the air.

“There is, all the time, a background electric field in the atmosphere,” says Sutton, “Any plant that’s connected to the ground will generate its own electric field just by interactions with the atmosphere.”

He wondered if bumblebees could sense those electric fields and use them in some way. So his team tested that idea with the help of a bunch of almost identical artificial flowers.

The scientists took half of the flowers and put 30 volts on them, then filled them with sugar water. The other flowers were filled with a bitter liquid. “And the bees will eventually learn to go to the ones that are charged to 30 volts,” says Sutton.

When they turned off the voltage, the bees lost the ability to differentiate between the flowers and began to forage randomly, showing that the bees really were relying on those electric fields.

But how were the bumblebees able to sense them? That’s what the researchers tacked in their latest study, described in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“We used a laser beam that could measure small motions of an antenna or a hair, and that’s how we measured how much the air and the antenna moved in response to an electric field,” says Sutton.

They also stuck a very fine electrode wire into the nerve at the socket of the bottom of a hair to record the activity of nerve cells there.

“They’ve got these really fuzzy hairs all over their body, and when they approach something with an electric field, that electric field will bend the hairs on their body,” says Sutton. And that bending generates a nerve signal.

The results suggest that bumblebees can sense an electric fields produced by a flower that’s up to 55 centimeters (nearly 22 inches) away. But that’s under ideal conditions in the lab—Sutton says 10 centimeters or so (about 4 inches) is more likely in the real world.

“I’m very excited by this because these little mechanically-sensitive hairs are common all over the insect world,” says Sutton. “I think this might be something we see in more insects than just bumblebees.”

“Basically this just adds to the long list of incredible things that bees can do,” says Robert Gegear, who studies pollinating insects at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Worcester, Massachusetts.

He says it’s unclear if bees really use electric fields in the real world, where flowers have a ton of other compelling features like color and smell.

“And so the one question I have is ‘What is the functional relevance?’— not just from the bee side but from the plant side as well,” says Gegear.

For all we know, Gegear says, bumblebees may detect electric fields for something that has nothing to do with flowers, like navigation or communication.

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As The Global Rich Buy Up London Homes, Britons Ask If The Money Is Legit

A view of the luxury apartment in London belonging to Igor Shuvalov, Russia's first deputy prime minister. Many wealthy foreigners are buying property in London, leading some critics to demand greater transparency about the actual owners and the source of their wealth.

A view of the luxury apartment in London belonging to Igor Shuvalov, Russia’s first deputy prime minister. Many wealthy foreigners are buying property in London, leading some critics to demand greater transparency about the actual owners and the source of their wealth. Rich Preston for NPR hide caption

toggle caption Rich Preston for NPR

The lush Whitehall Gardens are just a five-minute walk from Britain’s Parliament and 10 Downing Street, where the prime minister lives and works. Behind the gardens, with their grand fountains and flowers, sprawls an ornate stone building, overlooking the River Thames.

This is prime London real estate.

And it’s where Igor Shuvalov, Russia’s first deputy prime minister, has a three-bedroom penthouse that cost nearly $18 million dollars.

Shuvalov is one of many foreign politicians and business tycoons who have poured money into London real estate. Recent data show London has more multi-millionaires than any city in the world. The city’s tallest residential skyscraper is almost two-thirds foreign-owned, with a quarter of units held through secretive offshore companies in tax havens.

“[London] is a relatively safe place to store money, ill-gotten or legitimate,” says Andrew Foxall, who runs the Russia Studies Centre at The Henry Jackson Society, a London think tank. “A number of these individuals have allegedly been involved in money-laundering and tax evasion scandals.”

Shuvalov has not been charged with any wrongdoing in Russia or in Britain. British and Russian government documents show the apartment is owned by a company Shuvalov runs with his wife.

U.S. and British publications have raised questions about the source of Shuvalov’s wealth in recent years. He says he made his money as a businessman and denied there were any conflicts of interest with his government work.

“Regarding declaring my income and the income of my family, I have always approached the matter in an exceptionally responsible manner,” he said in 2012. “As a lawyer, I have invariably followed the rules and principles concerning conflicts of interest. The funds that I earned as a businessman, which are now in a managed trust, form the basis of my independence from various interested parties, in making my decisions as an official.”

But Foxall says it’s suspicious that Shuvalov was able to afford an $18 million apartment on his civil servant’s salary.

The annual British property tax on this 5,000-square-foot apartment is estimated to cost eight times Shuvalov’s entire yearly pay, anti-corruption activists say.

Despite such questions, British landlords, realtors and tax authorities are all happy to take rich foreigners’ cash, Foxall says, without really questioning where it comes from.

“For the very reason that the moment you went after one person, you would have to go after everybody. You’d have to launch inquiries, investigations,” he says. “There are powerful vested interests that work against anything serious being done about this… No government would want to be responsible for such a negative impact on the London property market.”

Roman Borisovich is a Russian banker-turned-anti-corruption activist and founder of ClampK, the Campaign for Legislation Against Money-laundering in Property by Kleptocrats. Here Borisovich stands in front of a multi-million dollar London house owned by Dmitry Firtash, a Ukrainian billionaire indicted in the U.S. for money-laundering.

Roman Borisovich is a Russian banker-turned-anti-corruption activist and founder of ClampK, the Campaign for Legislation Against Money-laundering in Property by Kleptocrats. Here Borisovich stands in front of a multi-million dollar London house owned by Dmitry Firtash, a Ukrainian billionaire indicted in the U.S. for money-laundering. Lauren Frayer for NPR hide caption

toggle caption Lauren Frayer for NPR

The result of all this foreign wealth?

London is very expensive. The average price of a home in London exceeds 600,000 British pounds — or about $875,000. Many young professionals have to commute from more affordable, faraway suburbs.

But in the city center, there are whole neighborhoods of multi-million-dollar homes that are largely empty. It’s a phenomenon dubbed “Lights Out London.” Absentee owners never turn on their lights, and never patronize local businesses. They’re Arab sheikhs, Russian oligarchs, Nigerian and Chinese businessmen who might visit once a year, if that.

“There’s nothing wrong with that if the money is demonstrably clean,” says Roman Borisovich, a Russian banker turned anti-corruption activist. He founded a group called ClampK — the Campaign for Legislation Against Money-laundering in Properties by Kleptocrats. “What we don’t want is to have proceeds of crime invested in London — as it happens right now.”

Borisovich gave NPR a tour of luxury London properties bought by foreigners. We drove past a Mayfair row house linked to the sons of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, and a stretch of buildings owned by Dmitry Firtash, a Ukrainian billionaire indicted in the U.S. for money-laundering. Among Firtash’s holdings is a disused London Underground subway station, sold to him by none other than the British government.

Last summer, Borisovich collaborated on a documentary that aired on British TV, called “From Russia With Cash.”

YouTube

In the film, Borisovich went undercover, pretending to be a corrupt Russian official named Boris. He approached five separate realtors from well-known London brokerages, telling them he wanted to buy a multi-million dollar property. He made explicit that he would pay for it with money stolen from the Russian state.

All five realtors were willing to help him. Their commissions would have been in the six figures.

“They had all been trained to watch for money-laundering, but five out of five agreed to play along. That was the appalling part,” Borisovich recalls. “Victorian bricks and mortar have become the currency of international crime,” he says, adding that he believes the British establishment has been complicit.

At an Anti-Corruption Summit on May 12 in London, British Prime Minister David Cameron acknowledged as much. He said the U.K. bears some of the responsibility for global corruption.

“If money is being stolen in Nigeria, and hidden in London, or hidden in New York, there’s an onus on us to act,” Cameron said. “What we’re talking about is stopping the corrupt hiding their loot from authorities.”

So he unveiled new rules, some of which take effect next month, requiring foreign buyers and current owners of U.K. property to identify themselves and publish their assets. Britain and most of its overseas territories will also begin sharing a register of who owns which offshore companies.

The measures have been applauded by Borisovich and other anti-corruption activists. But the praise has not been universal.

“The very elite have been put off by these changes,” says Trevor Abrahmsohn, a realtor who runs Glentree Estates, which deals in luxury property. “You have to be careful not to throw out the baby with the bathwater. There will be shady individuals who want confidentiality for illegal reasons, but a good deal of wealthy buyers want confidentiality for their own security and safety.”

Abrahmsohn offers that. He says 70 to 80 percent of his deals involving properties with a sale price of more than $15 million have gone through offshore companies. But he says that rate is falling among his clients. The U.K. now charges higher tax on properties bought through offshore companies, rather than by real people.

He worries the super-rich could take their money elsewhere.

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Chad's Former President Hissène Habré Found Guilty Of War Crimes

Hissene Habre, the former president of Chad, waves as he leaves a courthouse in Dakar, Senegal, on June 3. Habre was ousted from Chad in 1990 and has lived in exile in Senegal ever since.

Hissene Habre, the former president of Chad, waves as he leaves a courthouse in Dakar, Senegal, on June 3. Habre was ousted from Chad in 1990 and has lived in exile in Senegal ever since. Seyllou/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Seyllou/AFP/Getty Images

After an unprecedented trial, the former president of Chad has been found guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity by a court in Senegal.

NPR’s Ofeibea Quist-Arcton reports that former President Hissène Habré ruled for eight years until 1990.

Ofeibea filed this report for our Newscast unit:

“Former President Hissène Habré’s trial on war crimes charges has been a landmark for international justice — the first time in the world the courts of one country have prosecuted a former leader of another on human rights charges.

“It’s also the first time one African nation — Senegal — has tried the former ruler of another — Chad — for charges including political killings, rape and torture.

“Reed Brody, of the New York-based Human Rights Watch, says the verdict sends a powerful message that the days are over when tyrants could brutalize their people, pillage their treasure and escape abroad to live in luxury.

“Brody has worked for 17 years with alleged survivors of atrocities Habré is said to have ordered and endorsed.”

Back in December, Ofeibea reported on the trial. Dozens of witnesses took the stand at the Extraordinary African Chambers. Women said they were “raped in custody.”

Ofeibea reported:

“One woman, Kadidja Hassan Zidane, testified in October that Habre, now 73, raped her four times in the presidential palace in the 1980s.

“Pressed for more details by the presiding judge, Zidane told the court, ‘President Habre would be waiting for me in a room. Two times I resisted. Once I simply didn’t have the strength. The fourth time, I resisted and he jabbed me in my private parts with a ballpoint pen.'”

Among other crimes, the court found Habré guilty of raping Zidane.

Human Rights Watch, which was at the court house when the verdict was read, also spoke to Souleymane Guengueng, another one of Habré’s victims.

“I have been waiting for this day since I walked out of prison more than 25 years ago,” she told Human Rights Watch. “Today I feel ten times bigger than Hissène Habré.”

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The Nation, And A Father, Honor The War Dead

Hundreds of volunteers American flags on the more than 60,000 graves at the Massachusetts National Cemetery on Cape Cod for the Memorial Day holiday. (Alex Ashlock/Here & Now)

Hundreds of volunteers American flags on the more than 60,000 graves at the Massachusetts National Cemetery on Cape Cod for the Memorial Day holiday. (Alex Ashlock/Here & Now)

President Barack Obama marked this Memorial Day by placing a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery. People are visiting the graves of their loved ones killed in action at cemeteries across the country today.

Here & Now’s Alex Ashlock went to the Massachusetts National Cemetery on Cape Cod last week, and has this report.

Hundreds of volunteers, some of them veterans of the Vietnam War on their choppers, came to the Massachusetts National Cemetery on Cape Cod Saturday morning.

Jared Monti’s grave at the Massachusetts National Cemetery. He was killed in Afghanistan in 2006. (Alex Ashlock/Here & Now)

They were there to place American flags on the more than 60,000 graves.

The event is called Operation Flags For Vets and it was started by Paul Monti, a retired high school teacher, who has a very personal connection to this place.

“This is Memorial Day. This is a solemn day,” Monti said. “Don’t go up to a soldier today and say, ‘Hey, thank you for your service.’ That’s not what it’s all about today. It’s about those friends and those buddies that he lost in battle in service to the country.”

Paul Monti’s son Jared was killed in action in Afghanistan in 2006.

He died trying to rescue a badly wounded fellow soldier, an act that earned him the Medal of Honor, which was awarded posthumously in 2009.

Jared Monti is buried in Section 11 at the Massachusetts National Cemetery.

His dad placed a flag there on Saturday.

Watch Jared Monti’s Medal Of Honor Ceremony

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