Bumblebee flight 'triumph of power over finesse'

May 7, 2009
Bumblebee flight wingbeats.

(PhysOrg.com) -- Brute force rather than aerodynamic efficiency is the key to bumblebee flight, Oxford University scientists have discovered.

In recent years scientists have modelled how insect wings interact with the air around them to generate lift by using computational models that are relatively simple, often simplifying the motion or shape of the wings.

‘We decided to go back to the insect itself and use smoke, a wind tunnel and high-speed cameras to observe in detail how real bumblebee wings work in free flight,’ said Dr Richard Bomphrey of the Department of Zoology, co-author of a report of the research published this month in Experiments in Fluids. ‘We found that bumblebee flight is surprisingly inefficient - aerodynamically-speaking it’s as if the insect is ‘split in half’ as not only do its left and right wings flap independently but the airflow around them never joins up to help it slip through the air more easily.’

Such an extreme aerodynamic separation between left and right sets the bumblebee [Bombus terrestris] apart from most other flying animals.

‘Our observations show that, instead of the aerodynamic finesse found in most other insects, bumblebees have a adopted a brute force approach powered by a huge thorax and fuelled by energy-rich nectar,’ said Dr Bomphrey. ‘This approach may be due to its particularly wide body shape, or it could have evolved to make bumblebees more manoeuvrable in the air at the cost of a less efficient flying style.’

Professor Adrian Thomas of Oxford’s Department of Zoology, co-author of the report, said: ‘a bumblebee is a tanker-truck, its job is to transport nectar and pollen back to the hive. Efficiency is unlikely to be important for that way of life.’

Observing insects in free - as opposed to tethered - flight is a considerable challenge. The Oxford team trained bumblebees to commute from their hive to harvest pollen from cut at one end of a wind tunnel. They then used the to blow streams of smoke passed the flying bees, to reveal vortices in the air, and recorded the results with high-speed cameras taking up to 2000 images per second. From these images the team were able to visualise the airflow over flapping bumblebee wings.

The old myth that ‘bumblebees shouldn’t be able to fly’ was based on calculations using the aerodynamic theory of 1918-19, just 15 years after the Wright brothers made the first powered flight. These early theories suggested that bumblebee were too small to create sufficient lift but since then scientists have made huge advances in understanding aerodynamics and how different kinds of airflow can generate lift.

Provided by Oxford University (news : web)

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2 / 5 (4) May 07, 2009
Maybe I just haven't been paying attention, but I'm pretty sure people have known this to be the case for years. Simple deduction gives us this answer. This kind of study is a waste of time and gives us nothing of any cultural or scientific value.
4 / 5 (4) May 07, 2009
Then again neither does your statement.
5 / 5 (5) May 07, 2009
As a kid I read (in a creationist book) that since scientists couldn't explain how a bumblebee could fly, it meant God did it. I remember thinking how odd that God would choose such a technical and obscure way to show himself.
5 / 5 (2) May 07, 2009
It is STILL quite a feat!
5 / 5 (1) May 08, 2009
Having just tried to read and understand articles on post quantum non-locality, and dark energy and the Hubble constant in a box together, it's a big relief to read something on the bumble bee which I can understand.

This finding must surely be an exception to another article about a universal ratio between the locomotion muscle mass of animals and the efficiency of movement. I wonder how many other exceptions there are?
3 / 5 (2) May 09, 2009
Unfortunatelly for everyone, who seeks for simple answers, bumble bee doesn't use a "brute force" approach only (evolutionary nature only rarely does so), but a subtle hydrodynamic phenomena, too..

not rated yet May 10, 2009
i am so heartened that this peculiar observation still fascinates us.it has fascinated me for many years and caused me to wonder.
perhaps we ask the wrong question.
both in the original theory and the authors present work the attempt is to explain how enough aerodynamic lift could be generated by the wings to lift such a large body(relatively).could it be that this is not their intended purpose? perhaps instead the purpose is to rarefy the atmosphere just above the upper surface of their body and create a small pressure differential,with lift caused by the pressure below, causing the bumble bee to "float"...not fly.with two independently generated pockets it could control its "float-path"...admittedly,just a hypothesis.
not rated yet May 11, 2009
Rock on, bees! What an amazing feat- double the effort, huh?!! What ever happened to adaptation? I wonder where they'll go from here- perhaps the person reading the creationist book (above) would care to comment?
3.7 / 5 (3) May 11, 2009
Rock on, bees! What an amazing feat- double the effort, huh?!! What ever happened to adaptation? I wonder where they'll go from here- perhaps the person reading the creationist book (above) would care to comment?

Sure, I'll comment. It sounds like you may be where I was for the first 28-odd years of my life - convinced of creationism. Evolution sounds completely ridiculous, since evidence of design is all around us! Right?

As it turns out, scientists in general AREN'T closed-minded fools. In fact, they're very much like (most of) the rest of us - sensible and usually rational. They've arrived at the very counter-intuitive idea of evolution through observation of counter-intuitive evidence, not because of a secret anti-God agenda.

I grew up learning and reading about creationism and "intelligent design" so I was and am already quite familiar with most of the arguments. A lot of those arguments are at http://www.intell...sign.org (the Discovery Institute's site).

Once I was open to the idea that God is big enough to handle curiosity and questions, and that he must have given me a brain for a reason, I felt confident to try to understand why otherwise intelligent people bought into the theory of evolution. I did a lot of reading at http://www.talkorigins.org and on Wikipedia.

The reason I bring all this up is because you may need to do some reading to understand my answer. I don't say this condescendingly; I didn't understand much about evolution until the last couple years.

So, regarding the bees' apparently unique adaptation: evolutionary processes are "bottom-up" and so naturally seek local optima; a "top-down" design approach, by contrast, seeks the global optimum. The bees' *apparently* sub-optimal flying strategy makes sense as a local optimum, but not as a global.

In other words, a rational designer would have chosen the *most* efficient solution to the problem, whereas marginal adaptation results in a *more* efficient solution relative to the bee's existing phenotype and with regard to local selection pressures.
5 / 5 (2) May 13, 2009
Sorry- I totally agree with YOU--my comments were directed towards the individual who wrote the very first comment (the one you said also had "[nothing of any cultural or scientific value.]" I'm happy to agree with you on this. Perhaps we have ours organized differently- I was referring to:

"Maybe I just haven't been paying attention, but I'm pretty sure people have known this to be the case for years. Simple deduction gives us this answer. This kind of study is a waste of time and gives us nothing of any cultural or scientific value." and "As a kid I read (in a creationist book) that since scientists couldn't explain how a bumblebee could fly, it meant God did it. I remember thinking how odd that God would choose such a technical and obscure way to show himself."

I totally agree with much of what you have said in your rebuttle- without some skepticism and room for adaptation (which may not yet be over for bees), scientists would lead very different lives then they currently do. I also agree that the phenotypic traits we now see could be in response to some specific environmental competition or adaptation, which is a whole other (fun) conversation.

Thanks for your thoughtful response- I didn't think your reference on intelligent design was condescending- always interesting to read another reference to understand where someone else might be coming from. It always helps to stretch the brain- to have an informed and robust understanding of both sides of any potentially controversial topic.
not rated yet May 17, 2009
People looking for an excuse to "lose faith" ?

Even in case we were to assume bees as truly wasteful in their flight energy-consumption, that would not necessarily support a "blind optimization" hypothesis. After all, we humans are not living only to save energy. Immediately, I thought the reverse. That is, Allah might have created bees optimally toward visiting more flowers (because they consume that, as this physorg article/news is pointing out, too). Then, that might relate to the Quran "Allah inspired/told bee to collect from lots of flowers." Flowers benefit, in return -- from the intimacy of bees traveling there.

In other words, how would you "read creator's mind" about what He was optimizing?

This type of evo-cre talk goes on forever. See http://www.I-slam...nsky.htm if talkorigins seems plausible to you.

So, isn't this talk a waste of time of our (human) species? Why are we not optimal to get out of that?

Humbly, not to myself "read creator's mind" but recently, I got a hunch that Allah might be motivating materialists to discuss "how" things could come to exist "without a god" -- to point out that, His own coming into existence, is acceptable to the materialist mind. http://www.imame....rial.htm


Good strategy.

5 / 5 (1) May 18, 2009
This type of evo-cre talk goes on forever. See http://www.i-slam...nsky.htm if talkorigins seems plausible to you.

I don't have the time or the inclination to educate you. I will make a couple of points, however.

1) Your i-slam site is painful. People who choose neon green as a site background are either blind or cruel. Don't get me started on the terrible grammar, ridiculous text formatting, and wandering stream-of-consciousness arguments.

2) I can't follow about half of what you're trying to say in the first paragraph. I don't believe Allah exists, so I'm not trying to "'read creator's mind'" about what He was optimizing."

3) Your recent hunch is an age-old argument: namely, God (or Allah) created the physical world to make it seem plausible that he *didn't* create it, all so it would take faith for the rest of us to believe. You know, because faith is good. And faith is good because, well, I guess because it gets us to heaven? Wait - that sounds circular...
not rated yet May 28, 2009
@thales, nobody needs that "education," obviously.


1) The site background is not green. That is the border, normally. What browser do you have? The text should be black on white. Not to start with your too-personal text-formatting taste.
People talk back-and-forth about where to put ellipses, in C programs. That is a forever-talk, just like this evolution-vs.-creation issue. Do I need to publish a document about that, too? :-)) Indenting style is any author's taste. Widely understood. Your fussing is merely cosmetic contentiousness.

What "stream of consciousness" ? That is the total of the issue. Surrounding text with boxes, is customary. Indenting is the equivalent. The issues have coherence. People know that all well. The issues pop up almost all the time, together.

2) When you are making some theology-referential argument (whether yes or no, whatever the question), you invite the opposite view. The commentary upto this point, contains several supposedly "refutational" guesses. So, refuting what? Who told you that God was trying to optimize for minimizing energy use? That is the point I'm telling about. (Allah, Yahweh, what else you name, is not the issue there. The God, the Creator, is the concept.)

The point I'm making is to point out that
a) the bees are optimized to favor the flowers -- by visiting more flowers, not less (What evolutionary logic is that?)
b) that is consistent with a holy book (the Quran) sent by the God. That is opposing your guesses.

3) The vice versa. There is no watering down. The religious point is the triumphant, by observation, there. To find the truth is not all the time so available. Just like looking at the Universe, to interpret a holy book is hard, too. But when that is so openly seen, verifying that the explanation is right, is no problem. The good-intentioned people who thought the science was not able to explain bumblebee flight, might have been wrong, but that does not make the religious case less forceful, now. There is a major blow in the face of evolution, there.

Then again, in case you think that what you told (not what I told, but you thought so), is circular, then you are opposing Ayala (& NAS, & SigmaXi crowd writing that NAS creationism booklet 3rd Ed). You think (what I could not agree more), evolution is no gift to any religion -- because that is robbing the nature out of the hands of the Creator. The Quran is suggesting the vice versa. Look at the Universe, and you'll see that there is the Creator.

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