Scientists at the California Institute of Technology have finally solved the riddle of how honey bees manage to fly.
French etymologist August Magnan wrote in the introduction of his book Le Vol Des Insects published in 1934 that it was aerodynamically impossible for a honey bee to fly.
The incident passed into urban legend and is commonly used by creationists to point out the deficiencies of science in explaining the natural world.
The researchers used robotic simulators with sensors built in to mimic the movement of a bee's wings in flight.
They also filmed bees flying in a mix of helium and oxygen that is less dense than air in order to make the insects work harder and thus amplify their actions.
The team found that bees flap their wings much faster than similarly sized insects and use short, choppy wing strokes to generate the required power.
When loaded down with pollen, bees increase the arc of their wing strokes rather than speeding up the number of beats.
"Bees have evolved flight muscles that are physiologically very different from those of other insects," said Michael H. Dickinson, the Esther M. and Abe M. Zarem Professor of Bioengineering at the California Institute of Technology.
"One consequence is that the wings have to operate fast and at a constant frequency or the muscle does not generate enough power.
"This is one of those cases where you can make a mistake by looking at an animal and assuming that it is perfectly adapted. An alternative hypothesis is that bee ancestors inherited this kind of muscle and present-day bees must live with its peculiarities."
The team is now working on practical applications of the bee's wing stroke, which could have a significant impact on the way hovering aircraft are designed.
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