How do bees get their fat little bodies off the ground?

Bee up close. Source: Pixabay

The bee paradox

To quote the highly scientifically accurate blockbuster ‘The Bee Movie’, “According to all known laws of aviation, there is no way a bee should be able to fly. It’s wings are too small to get its fat little body off the ground. The bee, of course, flies anyway, because bees don’t care what humans think is impossible.”

For many years the way bees fly has been a mystery. The ‘bee paradox’ was first realised in the 1930’s, how the bee flew did not add up, it defied maths, physics and aviation. Their wings should not physically provide enough lift to get off the ground, yet they fly.

In the 90’s it was believed they operated on the same principles as planes/aerofoils, with a constant flow of air over their wings generating lift.

Principles of flight Source: Wikimedia


1996, what a big year not only did the Nintendo 64 come out but also there was a breakthrough with the bee paradox. It was discovered there are tiny tornadoes created on the edges of their wings, known as leading edge vortices (LEVS). The LEVS were hypothesised to be why the bee’s small wings get its little body off the ground.

Now, researchers from the University of Manchester, think they have another answer. With the power of mathematical modelling and scientific rigor, they believe they have discovered what the LEVS true role in the bee’s wing is: providing a higher angle of attack.

But how do they fly?

The LEVS are not directly generating lift but providing a mechanism for a higher angle of attack for the bee’s wing while preventing stalling. The tornado at the edge of the wing provides the opportunity for the bee to angle its wing more sharply towards the sky. This in turn increases air flow over the wing, giving it lift to fly and pollinate the world and be great little workers.

Angle of attack Source: Wikimedia Commons, Theresa knott / Kino

However, the principles of flight we learnt in year 10 physics still apply. If the pressure difference between the top of the wing and bottom of the wing became unbalanced with the rest of the bee’s forces, the bee will stall and fall as gravity still applies to them.

This discovery emerged from the analysis of different models created to replicate the wings with different mechanisms responsible for causing the lift. The data was simulated for those models and compared to real data from 8 species (including bees, small birds and other insects). The model of the LEV’s providing a higher angle of attack was most like the real data, leading to this new line of thought with how bees truly fly.

What now?

The new knowledge about LEVS and how bees fly could have an impact on other industries, like the development of mini flying devices like robotic bees.

Bee. Source Pixabay

9 Responses to “How do bees get their fat little bodies off the ground?”

  1. Teresa Hassett says:

    This is a very interesting post! Caught my eye straight away! As a zoology student, physics isn’t something I really understand or gravitate (haha) towards, but this was really well explained! Love the movie quote too. We learn so much from nature, it will be interesting how this will be applied to new technologies in the future.

  2. Emma Arrigo says:

    Julian Carlin, yeah agreed, I found an interesting Conversation article about the topic

    I’m not sure, that’s a good question about how it could be implemented. If i come across any other articles I will share them here.

  3. Emma Arrigo says:

    Thank you scripps 🙂 I’m happy someone enjoyed my references and links I had fun writing this piece.
    Yeah so the study looked at 3 types of hawkmoth, bumblebee, mayfly, fruitfly, pigeon and hummingbird, looking at both revolving and flapping wings and I believe that LEVS preventing stall applies to all the of flying creatures. Bees were a focus of my article though because of the history with the bee paradox.

  4. Emma Arrigo says:

    Hi jordii, same and then finding that picture I used at the top of the post, it really is noticeable. Thanks for reading!
    Yeah it’s definitely a space to watch the robotic pollination.

  5. Emma Arrigo says:

    Hi Sophia, yeah the opportunities with robotic bees are endless and fruitful(pun intended).
    Ants are also incredible creatures and I’m sure there is a lot for us to learn from them too.

  6. Julian Carlin says:

    Would be interesting to hear more about the potential applications! How easy is it to create these LEVS using robotic rather than biological sources?

  7. scripps says:

    So funny! I liked how you referenced the bee movie and nintendo 64. Do you know if other insects use a similar mode of flying or is it exclusive to bees?

  8. jordii says:

    I have never actually thought about the whole wing size vs size of the body it has to lift. And I am one to wonder about odd things a lot. How interesting! Thanks for writing. And as mentioned above the potential for use in robotic pollination is pretty neat.

  9. Sophia Ren says:

    Robotic bees can be useful for transporting airborne pollens (for endangered plants and large-scale agricultural seed planting). And your blog also reminds me of ants and their astonishing weight lifting capacity ….. mechanical Bionics are quite useful and powerful.