can bees feel electric fields

Bee-ing positive at the Sugar Pot, Kennington

coffee and cake Kennington

Banana bread and coffee with a sugar pot in the background at Sugar Pot, Kennington

What is it that makes a great café? A space to slow down and think? Good coffee and cakes? A local business that forms part of its local community and gives back to that community in different ways? As I was looking around for a new café to try, I was reminded of Sugar Pot in Kennington. Their website suggested that it ticked all of these boxes and so I was eager to try it (so eager in fact that I didn’t note the opening times, they close at 3 on week-days which is a problem when you arrive at about 2.55). So a second attempt at trying Sugar Pot was arranged, this time safely before lunch. This time, in the morning, there were quite a few chairs and tables outside the café in a roped off area of the street. (We hadn’t noticed this on the first occasion we visited as they had all been piled up inside the shop by the time we arrived). Most of these tables were occupied indicating that it is clearly an attractive place for locals to meet and chat over coffee. Fortunately there were also a fair number of tables inside which suited us as a café often offers more to ponder inside than out (though outside offers a different perspective particularly for people watching).

Inside, each table has an individual character and one in particular offered several points to think about both in terms of physics and aesthetics (you will have to visit to understand). However, it was elsewhere that my attention was drawn that day. Coffee is roasted locally by Cable Bakery while the cakes are from John the Baker of the Kennington Bakery. Sugar Pot definitely gets a tick in the “allergy friendly” box because they answered confidently (and with required caveats about traces) my dreaded question “does it contain nuts?” So I was able to enjoy a lovely slice of banana bread with my coffee. Most of the usual espresso based drinks are available (but not listed on the menu) together with a French Press coffee for those who prefer a non-espresso brew.

Interior Sugar Pot, Kennington

Noticeboard, magazines and coffee counter at Sugar Pot in Kennington

The community feel of the café was immediately apparent with a notice board adjacent to the counter being packed with notices of different activities happening around the locality and within Kennington Park which is just opposite. Underneath the counter were books and magazines and an advert for volunteering with the local bee keeping and urban farming organisation Bee Urban. This is indeed another way that Sugar pot gets involved in its local community. The coffee grounds are donated to Bee Urban for use in their Kennington Park based composting facility. Bees of course have an Albert Einstein link with physics as he is alleged to have said

“If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe, then man would have only four years of life left. No more bees, no more pollinators, no more plants, no more animals, no more man.”

I do not know if he really did say this but it is a sad reflection on our society that rather than address our environmental crimes we are researching pollinating with drones. However, it turns out the the bee has a much more exciting, almost shocking, link with physics and one that I only discovered thanks to the excellent book “Storm in a Teacup” by Helen Czerski¹. The bee is indeed a very positive creature.

ultra violet, bee, bumble bee

The world looks very different to a bee. Image © www.gardensafari.net

Whether or not they have a happy disposition, it seems that 94% of bees are, electrically speaking, positively charged². They pick up a static charge while flying through the air in a similar way to a balloon being rubbed on your hair. Flowers meanwhile have a negative charge meaning that in addition to colour, shape, scent and pattern, bees can recognise flowers by their electric fields. These fields in turn mean that pollen from the flower ‘jumps off’ and adheres to the bees fur before the bee has even landed, increasing the efficiency of the bee as a pollinator. But it turns out that there is much more to it. When the positive bee lands on the negative flower, there is a charge transfer that results in a change of the electric field around the flower for a duration of 100 seconds or so. By constructing artificial flowers held at different voltages containing either a sugar reward or a bitter centre, researchers at Bristol university found that bees could learn to recognise which ‘flowers’ contained the sugar and which were too bitter to be visited by sensing the electric field around the ‘flower’. It suggests that the changing electric field of real flowers provides a mechanism by which the bee can recognise if a flower has been recently visited by another bee and so been recently pollenated. This would mean that by ‘feeling’ the electric field of the flower, the bee may decide that it would be more rewarding to carry on to a differently charged flower. You can read more about the research in the paper here.

It seems to me that learning about how the bee senses its environment reveals even more about the amazing way that nature (and physics) works. And this offers a link back to Sugar Pot. On the shelf behind the counter back at Sugar Pot was a card that had the message “Keep safe, live to be”. What does it mean “live to be”? In the environmental encyclical Laudato Si’, Pope Francis urges everyone to slow down and notice things such as the bee commenting that “If someone has not learned to stop and admire something beautiful, we should not be surprised if he or she treats everything as an object to be used and abused without scruple.” He goes on “… when media and the digital world become omnipresent, their influence can stop people from learning how to live wisely, to think deeply and to love generously… True wisdom, as the fruit of self-examination, dialogue and generous encounter between persons, is not acquired by a mere accumulation of data...”³ Which is one reason that in order to be, we may want to come back and take a closer look at those bees. Taking time to experience our coffee in a relaxing space such as Sugar Pot and to watch and ponder as the bee uses senses of which we are barely aware can never be a waste of our time. Indeed, it is possible that our world may depend on it.

¹Storm in a Teacup, Helen Czerski, Transworld Publishers, 2016

² Clarke et al., “Detection and learning of Floral Electric Fields by Bumblebees”, Science, 340, 6128, 66 (2013).

³The passages quoted are from paragraphs 215 and 225 respectively of Laudato Si which can be read online.

Sugar Pot can be found at 248 Kennington Park Road, SE11 4DA