Mystery of bee flight finally solved

In 1934, the French entomologist August Magnan analyzed bees and argued that, according to the known laws of flight, bees shouldn’t be able to stay aloft. But now researchers at the California Institute of Technology have finally figured out the secret. They put some bees in a helium-rich tank, which has an atmosphere less dense than normal air, forcing them to work harder to stay aloft — and giving the scientists a new way to watch their flight dynamics.

The first surprise? Bees flap their wings way faster than they ought to. Normally, the smaller the insect, the faster the flapping. But bees flap 230 times a second, nearly the same as the 200-per-second fruit fly, which is 80 times smaller than bees. The bigger surprise came when they compared the bees’ performance in regular air to the thinner atmosphere, as the scientists told LiveScience:

The bees made up for the extra work by stretching out their wing stroke amplitude but did not adjust wingbeat frequency.

“They work like racing cars,” Altshuler said. “Racing cars can reach higher revolutions per minute but enable the driver to go faster in higher gear. But like honeybees, they are inefficient.”

My favorite part of the story is near the end, when the scientists can’t help taking a potshot at the intelligent-design crowd. “People in the ID community have said that we don’t even know how bees fly,” says Douglas Altshuler. “We were finally able to put this one to rest. We do have the tools to understand bee flight and we can use science to understand the world around us.” Zing!

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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