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The day you stop looking because you’re content God did it, I don’t need you in the lab. You’re useless on the frontier of understanding the nature of the world

~ Neil DeGrasse Tyson

One of the most famous urban myths of science (and a popular one among Intelligent Design proponents) is the myth concerning bees and flight. The myth that bees theoretically should not be able to fly has been around since the 1930s, and most engineering students have probably heard all the reasons why bees shouldn’t be able to fly. Well, they are able to fly, and they do it without defying the laws of physics.

According to a source, the myth originated in Germany in the 1930s. Apparently, during a dinner event a biologist and an aerodynamics engineer were having a chat and the biologist asked the engineer about the flight of the bees. The engineer (who I’m assuming was half-drunk by that point) did a quick calculation and applied the formula for fixed-wing aircraft. Naturally, the engineer concluded that bumblebees didn’t generate enough lift to fly. The biologist must’ve been all excited and started going around telling people that “bees defy physics!”

How do bees fly? (Actual reason)

One can only hope that the engineer realised his mistake when he sobered up and corrected himself. The problem lied with the formula used. The formula assumed rigid, smooth wings (like an airplane), when in reality the wings of the bumblebee function like reverse-pitch semirotary helicopter blades.

Bees basically twist their wings, so they are vertical when they move up, but horizontal when they move down. By doing that they also create vortices below them to push them up.

Bees flap their wings around 230 times per second. When carrying a heavy load, instead of increasing their wing beat, they stretch out their wing stroke amplitude. (Altshuler et al. 2005)

This short video explains bee flight beautifully (and it has slow motion footage!)

Cool fact: Buzzzzzzzzing!

The buzzing sound you hear when bees fly is not due to wing-flapping. It’s their flight muscles vibrating. In low temperatures, the buzzing sound is more pronounced since bumblebees need to warm up considerably in order to be able to fly (Heinrich 1981).

How do bees fly? (Religious answer)

(Courtesy of Yahoo! Answers)


Further Reading

Altshuler, D L; Dickson, W B; Vance, J T; Roberts, S P; Dickinson, M H. (2005) Short-amplitude high-frequency wing strokes determine the aerodynamics of honeybee flightProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 102(50)

Heinrich, B. (1981). Insect Thermoregulation. Krieger Publishing Company. ISBN: 0471051446.

Srour M. (2010) Insect Flight: Origins and Aerodynamics. Teaching Biology (Weblog)