Bees' flight secrets revealed

Sep 11, 2013
A honey bee robs a comb. Photo by Lynn Ketchum

Honeybees uses a combination of what they feel and see to streamline their bodies and gain maximum 'fuel efficiency' during flight, a world first study has found.

Scientists at Australia's Vision Centre (VC) have found that bees use their antennae as well as their eyes to calculate the best position for swift . The discovery could help in the development of robot aircraft, such as insect-like flying machines, say Mr Gavin Taylor and Professor Mandyam Srinivasan of The VC and The University of Queensland Brain Research Institute (UQ).

"Honeybees often have to travel very with only a small amount of nectar, so they have to be as 'fuel-efficient' as possible," says Prof. Srinivasan. "They achieve this by raising their abdomen to reduce drag so they can fly at high speeds while using less energy."

Previous research has found that honeybees use their eyes to sense the and move their abdomens accordingly, Mr Taylor says. "When we trick a honeybee into thinking that it's 'flying' forward by running background images past its eyes, the bee will move its body into a flying position despite being tethered.

"The faster we move the images, the higher it lifts its abdomen to prepare for rapid flight. However, if we blow wind directly at them without running any images, the bee raises its abdomen for only a little while. This means that they rely on their vision to regulate their flights."

Now, VC researchers have further unravelled the honeybee's flight secrets by adding airflow to the bee's environment. "We created a headwind and ran background images simultaneously," says Mr Taylor. "We found that when the fan is turned on, the bee raises its abdomen much higher than when the fan is switched off.

"This shows that while bees need to see to adjust their abdomens during flight, their streamlining response is also driven by airflow."

Prof. Srinivasan explains that the honeybee senses airflow with its antenna: "As soon as we immobilised the bee's antenna, its streamlining response was reduced as it relied only on its eyes.

"The bee uses its antenna to do many wonderful things – it tastes food with it, senses the vibration in the air when other bees dance, and now we know they also use it to regulate their flights by detecting wind speed."

Using information from several senses to control their flight is more effective as it helps bees respond more quickly to changes in the environment, Mr Taylor says. "For instance, their antennae can detect a change in the airflow, such as sudden gusts of wind, allowing them to adjust their bodies and speed. This is something that their vision can't do as their eyes might not 'see' the wind."

"As we start to build more robot aircraft, such as 'robotbees' with tiny flapping wings, a better understanding of how these creatures fly takes us one step further towards perfecting these flying machines," says Prof. Srinivasan.

"For instance, we can place battery packs on small unmanned flying vehicles that mimic the bee's abdomen. The vehicle can streamline itself when performing long distance, cruising flights – or stabilise itself by letting the 'abdomen' droop when needed.

"These are living proof that it's possible to engineer airborne vehicles that are agile, navigationally competent, weigh less than 100 milligrams, and can fly around the world using the energy given by an ounce of honey."

The study "Vision and air flow combine to streamline flying " by Gavin J. Taylor, Tien Luu, David Ball and Mandyam V. Srinivasan has been published in Scientific Reports.

Explore further: The real reason to worry about bees

More information: www.nature.com/srep/2013/130910/srep02614/full/srep02614.html

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Bees show off the perfect landing

Dec 23, 2009

(PhysOrg.com) -- Honey bees undergo a sudden transition from speeding aircraft to hovering helicopter as they perform the delicate art of landing on a flower.

The real reason to worry about bees

Sep 10, 2013

Honeybees should be on everyone's worry list, and not because of the risk of a nasty sting, an expert on the health of those beneficial insects said here today at the 246th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical ...

Aggressive bees may track future of flying robots

Aug 24, 2007

Angry bees that fly like mini-missiles could map the futures of unmanned aircraft and planetary explorer robots, thanks to new University of Queensland research backed by the Queensland Government.

Lonely bees make better guests

Jun 18, 2013

Solitary bees are twice as likely to pollinate the flowers they visit as their more sociable counterparts, according to a new study.

Scientists train honey bees to stick out their tongues

Dec 12, 2012

Honey bees are a highly organized, social species, as demonstrated by their complex colonies and the geometric structure of their hives. For hive building, the honey bee strongly relies on its tactile sense, ...

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.