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Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Bees do it!

Bees can’t fly.

That’s what I’ve read and keep reading.  Despite evidence to the contrary, someone somewhere decided that bees cannot possibly fly, given their build and the fact they often carry their body weight in munchies for the hive.  Never trust the obvious!

Well, it’s true that bees are not built the way the mechanisms we have created to fly – plane, jets, helicopters, gliders.  They aren’t even built like birds.  But those aren't the only ways to fly, as any insect can tell you.

The complicated mechanisms of insect aerodynamics are just beginning to be understood.  The rumor, nay, urban legend that engineers have determined that bees can't fly according to the known laws of aerodynamics only reveals the lack of understanding about them.  Unlike manmade flying machines and birds, insect wings are flat, have a rough surface, and are flexible.  Insects twist them and flex in ways that make me hurt.  That they are so small means that some of the laws of physics are very different in relation to them.

Because insect wings twist and bend so much, they maneuver through the air differently than, say, an airplane which has stiff wings to negotiate through the air.  Since air is not still, nor does it all blow in one direction, insects must negotiate the various movement patterns within air, and accounting for their small size, that requires quite a number of contortions and the ability to detect and deal with any sudden shifts in pressure or direction of flow.

It's also difficult to study insect flight, as they are so small it is hard to attach instruments to measure their efforts.  And since bees flap their wings 230 times every second (how's that for a workout?), it would be even harder to analyze their flight.  That buzzing sound you hear though, isn't caused by the beating of their wings.  It is from the vibration of its flight muscles.  

Bees also dance in efforts to communicate.  One dance relates to its buddies the source of comestibles to be brought back to the crib.  Some scientists have been able to attach tracking devices which respond to their gyrations.  The central element to the bee dance is a wiggle, or shimmy, in a straight line..  A bee may repeat this move by circling in a figure-8 pattern to make itself clearly understood.  The angle of that line relates to the direction of the food source with respect to the sun.  So a wiggly dance pointing toward 9 o'clock means the source is 90 degrees to the left of the sun. 

My bees moshing this past spring.  Some of them
left to find better digs.
Nobel prize winner Karl Von Frisch noted in the 1960s that bees have a sort of solar compass, and that the number of wiggles in a figure-8 corresponds to some bee measurement indicating how far away the food source is.  One test with a dancing mechanical bee got a response from real bees.  Whether they understood the dance or not is another thing entirely.  Sometimes a food source might be a minute away, but it will take the other bees five or ten minutes to find it.  Thus some scientists think the bees get excited by the dance and go on their merry way, but actually may follow some kind of scent train left by the Baryshnikov bee, perhaps the scent of the pollen or nectar.

Now this dance thing doesn’t work for humans.  Or at least for me.  Many a time I’ve tried a little dance to let my husband know I’m up for dinner out, and maybe a movie.  But he just snickers, grabs a cup of coffee, and heads for his office.  Wonder if I should wear yellow and black stripes…


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