Hovering is a bother for bees: Fast flight is more stable

Mar 14, 2013
Image credit: Wikipedia.

Bumblebees are much more unstable when they hover than when they fly fast, according to new research published this month in the Journal of Theoretical Biology.

The authors of the paper, Na Xu and Mao Sun from Beijing University of & Astronautics in China, used a mathematical model to analyze the way bumblebees fly at different speeds, showing that the bumblebee is unstable when it hovers and flies slowly, and becomes neutral or weakly stable at medium and high flight speeds.

The instability at hovering and low speed is mainly caused by a sideways wind made by the movement of the wings – a 'positive roll moment'. As the bee flies faster, the wings bend towards the back of the body, reducing the effect of the sideways wind and increasing the stability of its flight.

According to the authors the results could be useful in the development of small flying machines like robotic insects.

"Dynamic flight stability is of great importance in the study of biomechanics of insect flight," said Mao Sun. "It is the basis for studying flight control, because the inherent stability of a flying system represents the dynamic properties of the basic system. It also plays a major role in the development of insect-like micro-air vehicles."

In recent years, with the understanding of the aerodynamic force mechanisms of insect flight, researchers have been devoting more effort to the area of flight dynamics.

The study further refutes the persistent misconception that, according to physics, bumblebees shouldn't be able to fly. The fallacy can be traced back to Le Vol Des Insects (Hermann and Cle, Paris, 1934) by French entomologist August Magnan – on page 8 he mentions bumblebees, stating, "First prompted by what is done in aviation, I applied the laws of air resistance to insects, and I arrived, with Mr. Sainte-Laguë, at this conclusion that their flight is impossible."

This new research looks at bumblebee flight using the same methods as used in quantum mechanics. By using average measurements – such as wing size and shape, body mass, and upwards and downwards forces – the researchers made the stability analysis of the flapping flight of an insect mathematically the same as that of a rigid airplane. By using the mathematical model rather than studying live bees, the researchers could be more accurate in their analysis of mechanical flight.

"The computational approach allows simulation of the inherent stability of a flapping motion in the absence of active control, which is very difficult, even impossible, to achieve in experiments using real insects," Sun further explained.

Xu and Sun used a model of a bumblebee with wings approximately the same size and shape as a real bee's – flat plates with rounded edges, and with a thickness of three percent of the length of one wing. The outline they used of the body was also approximately the same as that of a bumblebee.

Previous research has looked at the hovering flight dynamics of different insects, including the dronefly, fruit fly and bumblebee. However, in hovering flight, there is no consideration of forwards movement, and the forces created by the wings cancel each other out. This study details that both vertical and horizontal movement need to be taken into consideration to determine how stable the flight is overall.

The results show a significant difference in stability measurements between bumblebees and droneflies – something the researchers think is connected to the size and shape of the insects' wings. They plan to conduct further research in this area to compare the stability of at different speeds of and droneflies.

Explore further: Male monkey filmed caring for dying mate (w/ Video)

More information: This article is "Lateral dynamic flight stability of a model bumblebee in hovering and forward flight", by Na Xu, Mao Sun – Beijing University of Aeronautics & Astronautics, China (doi: 10.1016/j.jtbi.2012.11.033). The article appears in Journal of Theoretical Biology, 319 (2013) 102, 21 February 2013

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Hovering not hard if you're top-heavy, researchers find

Feb 10, 2012

Top-heavy structures are more likely to maintain their balance while hovering in the air than are those that bear a lower center of gravity, researchers at New York University's Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences ...

Secrets of insect flight revealed

Sep 17, 2009

(PhysOrg.com) -- Researchers are one step closer to creating a micro-aircraft that flies with the manoeuvrability and energy efficiency of an insect after decoding the aerodynamic secrets of insect flight.

Flapping protective wings increase lift

May 29, 2012

New research from Lund University in Sweden reveals the value of carrying two layers of wings around. The researchers studied dung beetles and the way their protective forewings actually function. These wings do not only ...

Recommended for you

Male monkey filmed caring for dying mate (w/ Video)

Apr 18, 2014

(Phys.org) —The incident was captured by Dr Bruna Bezerra and colleagues in the Atlantic Forest in the Northeast of Brazil.  Dr Bezerra is a Research Associate at the University of Bristol and a Professor ...

Orchid named after UC Riverside researcher

Apr 17, 2014

One day about eight years ago, Katia Silvera, a postdoctoral scholar at the University of California, Riverside, and her father were on a field trip in a mountainous area in central Panama when they stumbled ...

In sex-reversed cave insects, females have the penises

Apr 17, 2014

Researchers reporting in the Cell Press journal Current Biology on April 17 have discovered little-known cave insects with rather novel sex lives. The Brazilian insects, which represent four distinct but re ...

Fear of the cuckoo mafia

Apr 17, 2014

If a restaurant owner fails to pay the protection money demanded of him, he can expect his premises to be trashed. Warnings like these are seldom required, however, as fear of the consequences is enough to ...

User comments : 0

More news stories

Biologists help solve fungi mysteries

(Phys.org) —A new genetic analysis revealing the previously unknown biodiversity and distribution of thousands of fungi in North America might also reveal a previously underappreciated contributor to climate ...

Researchers successfully clone adult human stem cells

(Phys.org) —An international team of researchers, led by Robert Lanza, of Advanced Cell Technology, has announced that they have performed the first successful cloning of adult human skin cells into stem ...

NASA's space station Robonaut finally getting legs

Robonaut, the first out-of-this-world humanoid, is finally getting its space legs. For three years, Robonaut has had to manage from the waist up. This new pair of legs means the experimental robot—now stuck ...

Ex-Apple chief plans mobile phone for India

Former Apple chief executive John Sculley, whose marketing skills helped bring the personal computer to desktops worldwide, says he plans to launch a mobile phone in India to exploit its still largely untapped ...

Filipino tests negative for Middle East virus

A Filipino nurse who tested positive for the Middle East virus has been found free of infection in a subsequent examination after he returned home, Philippine health officials said Saturday.

Egypt archaeologists find ancient writer's tomb

Egypt's minister of antiquities says a team of Spanish archaeologists has discovered two tombs in the southern part of the country, one of them belonging to a writer and containing a trove of artifacts including reed pens ...

Airbnb rental site raises $450 mn

Online lodging listings website Airbnb inked a $450 million funding deal with investors led by TPG, a source close to the matter said Friday.