Flight of the bumblebee

Over a boozy discussion in the pub a friend of mine who likes nothing more than to try pick apart my scientific beliefs mentioned that some scientists once proved that bees defied the laws of physics when they flew. He offered this as some sort of proof that there was more going on in the world than the laws of physics could account for. Never one to be beaten I googled this bizarre claim and much to my relief the whole thing turned out to be a myth (I’ll be sure to mention this to my friend when I next see him).

There were plenty of websites stating that the above claim was false but none I could find offered the truth behind bee flight. Now onto my actual question, how does a bee flap it’s wings? How do the four wings move during flight? Is it a simple case of wings on the same side flapping in unison with a gap between them or is something more complicated going on such as one going up, one going down and ‘smacking’ together when they meet in the middle?


cecil has covered it, atleast in part


Cecil’s column confirms what I read from other sources about the origin of the myth and the inaccurate analogy between a plane’s wings and those of a bee but doesn’t really touch on the question of how the wings flap in terms of observed motion rather than the muscular action behind each flap.

I imagine with today’s high-speed photography someone will be able to produce a link to a site showing each step of a complete ‘flap’ but I can’t for me life of me find one :slight_smile:

Feely admit that there is more going on in the world than the laws of physics account for and add that the business about the bumblebee is a bunch of crap, with citations.

Of course I admit that there are things that science can’t explain, however, because science can’t explain it doesn’t mean that there is some god-like figure at work which is what my friend was implying.

OK, I´m working from memory here…

Stick your hand out, palm down.

Start by moving it up and back while rising the front (leading edge), when you reach the top, arc forwards and start rotating your hand in the opposite direction (Leading edge down), move your hand down and backwards and make an arc at the bottom where you then again rotate your palm so the leading edge is up and repeat the motion.
It´s like a figure 8, and the trick is when to rotate the hand/wind.

By the way, I´ve built several ornithopters that fly more or less like an insect (except for the 8 motion).

Quite a tricky movement to get going fluently but I think I understand what you are saying. From this picture:

it appears that the second set of wings is directly underneath the first larger set though it is hard to tell if both wings join the body at the same point (i.e. the wing is branched into two) or if the wings are entirely seperate. So what of this second set? Does it perform the same action only or do something different?

The two pairs of wings are entirely separate. The hind wings are behind and slightly below the fore wings, they just appear to be below the fore wings because of the angle. The insect order to which bees belong (Hymenoptera, which includes wasps and ants as well) is characterized by a set of tiny hooks (hamuli) on the hind wings that can be hooked into to a fold in the fore wings, linking the wings so that the two pairs can be used as if they were a single pair. This allows hymenopterans a great deal of flexibilty in the way they fly: they can use their wings as either two independent pairs, or as a single pair, as the need arises.

This article gives some information on how insects fly:

Essentially, insects fly in a very different way from larger animals or machines. Flight strategies that work at a micro scale don’t work very well when you scale them up.

You may want to check this site out: http://www.ctie.monash.edu.au/hargrave/legacy1.html#Bird_and_Insect_Flight

Seems that this PDF file gets into the matter in depth.