A bumblebee’s body is big in comparison to its wings, and if you really look at how it flies, you wonder how it ever got off the ground. The body is short, stubby and looks plump even though that is mostly due to the hair.

Yet the bumblebee is one of the most amazing flying insects in the world. They are capable hovering like helicopters, and going back and forth, up, and down.

French entomologist August Magnan stated all the way back in the 1930s that the bumblebee’s flight is an impossibility, and this concept has remained in the forefront of popular consciousness ever since. It wasn’t until the 1990s that scientists figured it out.

Michael Dickinson is a biology professor and insect flight expert at the University of Washington. According to him, the question has been resolved as to how such little wings can generate sufficient force to keep the insect in the air. Dickinson can explain the bumblebee’s physics-defying aerodynamics act. 

This 3:00-minute video by Warped Perception shows us some outstanding bumblebees in flight:



Dickinson gathered data by using high-speed photography of real bees flying, and from force sensors on a larger-than-life robotic bee wing flapping about in mineral oil. He revealed the big secret in a study on the flight of the bumblebee that he published in 2005 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Bumblebees, with few exceptions, flap their wings back and forth, not up and down. This was probably what confused Magnan, and others that tried to solve the mystery.

It also has to do with the speed the wings flap at. There are as many as a mind boggling 230 flaps per second.

The bumblebee wing movement is like a horizontal infinity symbol of sorts, or a circular motion or the making of a sideways number 8 with your hands. This is not how planes fly. The bumblebee has different flight dynamics. Whereas an airplane wing forces air down, which pushes the plane and its wing up, it is more complicated for insects. 

The sweeping bee wings are like the partial spin of a helicopter propeller, according to Dickinson, but the angle of the wing creates small hurricane-like vortices in the air. In the eye of the ‘storm’ a low-pressure area is created above the bee’s wings, compared to the surrounding air. By keeping these above the wings it helps the bees to stay in the air. When pressure drops, more air flows in to fill the void left behind as it rises. The bumblebee rides on the sudden air gust and this is what levitates the bee based on this combination of rotation and vibration.  

To put it clearly, a bumblebee’s wings do not carry the insect through the air. It is the motion of the wings that creates a vortex, and the bees are carried by that air beneath their bodies. 

Next time you are lucky enough to see some real bumblebees, take a minute to admire the wonders of their aerodynamic skills.