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Several nights ago, my coworker Teebo and I were prepared for a busy night at the Museum of the Weird, when a freak electrical storm decided to strike Austin. The storm brought little rain, but remained hunkered over the central downtown area for hours where its spectacular displays of sideways lightning illuminated the skyline until the wee hours of dawn. At approximately 11pm is when the bugs began to swarm. Flying tree roaches, to be exact, demurely labeled in the South as “Palmetto Bugs.”

I returned from conducting one of the final tours of the night to find Teebo poised with the broom over one arm like she was waiting for the zombie hordes to stagger in through the front door.

Wild-eyed she exclaimed, “You missed it!”

“Missed what?” I asked, frozen in place.

“The roaches! Hundreds of them! They were coming in the door from the street in a flood,” she proclaimed. “See! There’s another one!”

Teebo swung the broom with killer efficiency, bringing about the deaths of several more flying tree roaches as I screamed like a little girl (not my finest moment).

After the adrenaline began to subside and the swarms lessened to a few dazed and confused bugs staggering as drunkenly through the door as the late-night patrons, I started to think about the cause of the sudden infestation.

There is a scientific connection between insects and electrical fields. Ants swarm around electrical lines and have been found to play house in the back of television sets, lamp sockets, and computers. I personally lost an expensive Mac in college when ants decided to have a Burning Man party in the tower. There are several theories as to why insects are attracted by the electrical frequencies put out by our human technology. Perhaps these frequencies are more attuned to the white noise of their own insect chatter and, thus, they are drawn to it, believing it to be the source of a larger hive?

One study has shown that bees use a flower’s electrical field to locate the pollen and vice versa. Flowers emit an electrical frequency designed to assist an insect’s internal navigation system. The voltage changes to signify when the nectar or pollen levels are low. This research was conducted by a team from the University of Bristol, which studied almost 200 bees collecting pollen from petunias. In an article in the UK Daily Mail, PhD student Dominic Clark, from the University of Bristol’s School of Biological Sciences, said, “Flowers are like giant advertising billboards for bees. We have known for a long time that flowers use colour and smell to advertise to their pollinators. More recently though, it is being discovered that flowers take advantage of more and more of their pollinators’ senses to send their messages.”

It has also been proven that a bee’s buzz creates an electric current which allows them to communicate with other bees. An article in the Huffington Post quotes, “Tests show that the electric fields, which can be quite strong, deflect the bees’ antennae, which, in turn, provide signals to the brain through specialized organs at their bases.”

How do electrical fields from pollinating flowers relate to the swarming palmetto bugs? Massive, highly charged electrical storms emit frequencies far beyond an insect’s own natural frequencies or those of manmade electrical structures, charging the air and driving insects into frenzies of unnatural behavior. What we witnessed was an example of the bizarre behavior that freak electrical storms can cause in the bug world.

Of course, this is just my personal theory based on what I’ve read and observed. They could have been fleeing a psychotic ally cat, for all I know. If it ever happens again, however, Teebo and I are prepared. We’ll just whip out one of the giant Madagascar hissing cockroaches we keep to feed Torgo, the 30-pound Nile Monitor Lizard upstairs, and show these Texas bugs what a real roach looks like.

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