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