"Flight of the Bumblebee" is a musical composition written at the turn of the twentieth century by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov as part of an opera. The speed and nimble agility required to play it have intrigued musicians ever since. If you aren't familiar with the piece, here's a version by concert pianist Caroline Clipsham.
The flight of actual bumblebees is equally intriguing and also requires speed and nimble agility. The feat is so remarkable that a story has emerged within contemporary folktale claiming that the ability of bumblebees to fly can't be explained by science. That tale, although popular, is untrue.
According to "The Secrets of Bee Flight," by the Institute of Physics, the story may have had its origin during the 1930s when someone did a rough calculation and determined that a bumblebee's wings couldn't produce sufficient lift to keep the insect aloft. "Flight of the Bumblebee," by Ivars Peterson for Science News suggests that the infamous calculation was done in a simplified manner using the assumption that the bee's wings were stationary (like an airplane's wings). However, bumblebee wings aren't fixed. They beat 130 times per second. That movement makes all the difference. It swirls the air in a way that creates a region of low pressure over the leading edge of the wing. The pressure difference provides the necessary lift, thus ensuring that the humble bumblebee does indeed adhere to the laws of physics.
Recently, researchers discovered that bumblebee flight is also impacted by differences in how they carry nectar and pollen. Bumblebees carry pollen in special "baskets" (called corbiculae) on their hind legs. Carrying pollen in this way makes the bees more stable in flight but it also makes them less maneuverable. They carry nectar on their abdomens instead of on their hind legs. This helps them retain better maneuverability but their flight becomes less stable. (Read more in "Nectar vs. pollen loading affects the tradeoff between flight stability and maneuverability in bumblebees," by Andrew M. Mountcastle, Sridhar Ravi, and Stacey A. Combes in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS); published ahead of print August 3, 2015, doi:10.1073/pnas.1506126112. Abstract)
More Information about Bumblebees
- "Pollinators: Bumble Bee," a National Park Service fact sheet.
- "Bee Basics: An Introduction to Our Native Bees," by Beatriz Moisset and Stephen Buchmann, a USDA Forest Service and Pollinator Partnership Publication, March 2011.
To view fine-art quality photos of bees, visit the Bees and Bugs gallery from AddieBee Photography.
This article originally appeared in the August 2015 issue of Observations: A Pier Press® Newsletter. You can access the archived issue here, and if you're not already a subscriber, click here to sign up. It's free.