Bees Can Fly?

This question might seem one of the most absurd, but it is one that has baffled scientists for over 70 years. In 1934, a French entomologist, one who studies insects, August Magnan and his assistant calculated that a bee was physically incapable of flying.

Aerodynamically that is. But bees fly everyday! So, this question has been baffling scientists around the world for quite some time. It has been observed that bee’s wings flap almost randomly in a non-oriented pattern. Therefore, it should not be able to be keeping them afloat in the air.

After 72 years, the question has finally been answered.

Thanks to greater technology and a better understanding of aerodynamics, Michael H. Dickinson, the Esther M. and Abe M. Zarem Professor of Bioengineering, and his postdoctoral student Douglas L. Altshuler and their colleagues at Caltech and the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, have finally understood how honeybees fly!

Bee Flight

Three Angles of Bee Flight

They used a large robotic replica of the honeybee wing and many high-speed cameras which were obviously previously unavailable to the scientists of the past. By using the high-speed camera, they were able to capture the wing movement of the honeybee and the most peculiar part about it was that the honeybee did not flap its wings like other insects!

“The secret of honeybee flight, is the unconventional combination of short, choppy wing strokes, a rapid rotation of the wing as it flops over and reverses direction, and a very fast wing-beat frequency.”

According to Dr. Magnan 70 years ago, bees would be expected to beat wings at the same rate of other insects and at a larger arc of almost 180 degrees. After careful observation, it has finally been found that they beat their wings extremely fast, 15% faster than other insects at a rate of 230 beats per second.

Bees are often called peculiar because their method of flight is extremely inefficient, choppy and different from other insects.

When bees are performing other tasks such as transporting nectar or pollen, they increase the arc of their wing strokes, but continue flapping at the same rate. Dickinson notes that, “it would be much more aerodynamically efficient if they regulated not how far they flap their wings but how fast.”

Bees are kind of stupid if you think about it.

Sources:

1. “Flight Of The Bumble Bee Is Based More On Brute Force Than Aerodynamic Efficiency.Science Daily: News & Articles in Science, Health, Environment & Technology. Web. 05 Oct. 2011. <http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/05/090507194511.htm>.
2. “Scientists Finally Figure Out How Bees Fly | LiveScience.Current News on Space, Animals, Technology, Health, Environment, Culture and History | LiveScience. Web. 05 Oct. 2011. <http://www.livescience.com/528-scientists-finally-figure-bees-fly.html>.

One Comment

Lorena Barba posted on October 6, 2011 at 2:18 pm

Hi Chris,
Nice post! I have added the sharing buttons at the top … and also corrected a couple of bad apostrophes that were glaring at me. I left one bad apostrophe, though; can you find it? :-)