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This myth people keep quoting about how bees shouldn't be able to fly is scientifically incorrect -- here's why

  • There is a popular misconception that bees shouldn’t be able to fly.
  • In reality, this is not true, because they can and do fly all the time.
  • The science behind how they can fly involves the way they move their wings, and the generation of tiny hurricanes that lift them upwards.

Bee Movie has quite the cult following. There are numerous YouTube videos devoted to it, such as “The bee movie: but every time there say bee it speeds up.” Someone loves the film so much that they watched it on Netflix 357 times in 2017.

But Bee Movie is also spreading lies.

Here are the opening words to the film:

“According to all known laws of aviation, there is no way that a bee should be able to fly. Its wings are too small to get its fat little body off the ground. The bee, of course, flies anyways. Because bees don’t care what humans think is impossible.”

It’s a nice idea, but in reality bees do not disobey any laws of physics. If they did, bees would be responsible for ripping apart time and space whenever they flew around.

The myth dates back to the 1930s, when the French entomologist August Magnan noted that a bee’s flight should be impossible, because of the haphazard way their wings flapped around. And if bees flew like aeroplanes, he would be correct.

Aeroplanes can fly because of a careful balance of four physical forces: lift, drag, weight, and thrust. The lift force must balance its weight, and thrust must exceed its drag, to make flying possible. Planes use wings for lift and engines for thrust. Drag is reduced thanks to a streamlined shape, and lightweight materials.

The wingspan of a plane is large enough to satisfy the lift equations for flight, so they don’t need to flap. But the small wings of a bee compared to its relatively fat body are not. A regular Boeing 747 plane can also take off at roughly 184 mph, whereas bees do not reach anywhere near that speed.

Due to low speeds, and the high amount of drag when bees flap their wings, it might look like they shouldn’t be able to fly. In reality, they simply fly in a completely different way.

One study from 2005 helped explain the way bees get themselves off the ground. The scientists compared bees to fruit flies, and found that a fruit fly has one eightieth the body size and flaps its wings at a rate of 200 times per second. In comparison, honeybees flap 230 times per second.

This was surprising because smaller insects generally have to flap their wings faster to compensate for decreased aerodynamic performance. To further complicate things, bees are also often carrying pollen and nectar, which sometimes weighs as much as their entire bodies.

In the study, the researchers put bees in a small chamber filled with oxygen and helium, which is less dense than regular air. Bees had to work harder to stay in the air, which allowed the team to observe how they compensated.

They saw that the bees stretched out their wing stroke amplitude, but didn’t adjust the frequency.

“They work like racing cars,” one of the authors of the study, Douglas Altshuler, told Live Science. “Racing cars can reach higher revolutions per minute but enable the driver to go faster in higher gear. But like honeybees, they are inefficient.”

Another study from 2005, by biology professor Michael Dickinson from the University of Washington, also concluded that bees flap their wings back and forth, not up and down. This was previously a big misconception about the way insects fly, and could have originally been what tripped Magnan up in the first place.

An aeroplane’s wing forces air down, which pushes the plane upwards. Insects sweep their wings in a partial spin. Rather than being like a propeller, the angle to the wing creates vortices in the air like small hurricanes. The eyes of these mini-hurricanes have a lower pressure than the air outside, which lifts the bees upwards.

So the next time someone tells you a bee shouldn’t be able to fly, you should inform them that this is merely a myth perpetuated by popular culture. In reality, bees simply create mini-hurricanes wherever they go, which is a lot easier to get your head around.

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