Insect swarms get charged up

This exercise is a part of Educator Guide: Insect Swarms Might Electrify the Sky / View Guide

Directions for teachers: Ask students to read the online Science News article “Insect swarms might generate as much electric charge as storm clouds,” which explores how insect-induced static electricity might affect the atmosphere, and answer the following questions. A version of the article, “Insect swarms might electrify the sky” appears in the December 3, 2022 issue of Science News.

1. How does the author hook you into reading the article? What literary device does the author use and why do you think they chose this literary device?

The first sentence of the article uses an analogy that compares the electricity produced between animals to romantic feelings between two people. An analogy is a comparison between things that have similar features. This literary device is often used to help explain a principle or an idea. In the article, the analogy helps the reader understand that this article will cover the topic of animal electricity.

2. What types of things does the atmosphere’s electric field influence?

The atmosphere’s electric field affects how dust moves as well as the formation of water droplets and lightning strikes.

3. How are flying insects like particles in the atmosphere, according to physicist Joseph Dwyer?

Particles moving around in the atmosphere charge up easily and contribute to the atmosphere’s electric field. Flying insects basically do the same thing.

4. What unexpected observation led scientists to investigate the question: How does biology influence atmospheric electricity?

When honeybees passed over a sensor that measures atmospheric electricity, the electric charge strength increased by an average of 100 volts per meter. And denser swarms produced greater increases in charge.   

5. A claim is an assertion of something as a fact. What is one scientific claim made by scientists in the article that attempted to answer their new scientific question?

The electricity produced by swarms of insects such as honeybees and locusts could add to the atmosphere’s electric charge.

6. Evidence is the scientific data that are given to support a claim. What information do the scientists give as evidence?

The scientists measured the charges of individual desert locusts, found locust density data from other studies and used a computer simulation based on the honeybee swarm to estimate the per-meter electric charge of a locust swarm.

7. Reasoning is the explanation of why the evidence supports the claim. What reasoning is given by the scientists?

Because the electric charge of the simulated locust swarm was on par with that in storm clouds, scientists think that the electricity generated by locusts and other flying insects may be large enough to impact the environment.

8. Why were scientists interested in studying locusts?

Scientists were interested in studying locusts because the insects can form gigantic swarms. 

9. Could locust swarms generate enough electricity to produce lightning? How might the electricity produced by insect swarms affect people?

No, it is unlikely that locust swarms would ever reach the densities required to produce lightning. But the swarms could interfere with sensors that people use to monitor lightning strikes.