Even Bill Nye Gets It Wrong Sometimes: Science Guy Flubs Explanation of Bumblebee Flight In Reddit AMA

 @rpalmerscience
on June 05 2013 3:42 PM
flyingbee
The flight of the bumble bee is complex, but not unexplainable, despite popular myth. Wikimedia Commons/Wilder_Kaiser

Even Bill Nye the Science Guy can’t be right 100 percent of the time. Especially when discussing a scientific topic as historically knotty as the mechanics of bee flight.

In a question-and-answer session on Reddit Tuesday, Nye said he was inspired as a child by watching bumblebees fly.

“How could such a relatively big animal fly with such relatively small wings? The answer was discovered in my lifetime. Their abdomens are springs, and their halteres” -- the nobby little structures behind the wings -- “provide vortices which allow the wings to swing up with hardly any aerodynamic drag. If I may, how cool is that?”

Except, as one Reddit commentator (and entomologist) pointed out, that explanation’s not quite accurate. Other insect researchers confirm this as well.

“Only Diptera [flies] have halteres, which do help them navigate and help in the navigation as far as giving the flies balance, stability, and a notion of gravity,” Juliana Rangel-Posada, an entomologist at Texas A&M University, wrote in an email. “Bumble bees, like any other bees, have no halteres (which are modified wings), but rather two pairs of wings.”  

So how do bumble bees fly? It’s a bit of a myth that a bumblebee’s flight is a mathematical impossibility. In the 1930s, French scientists used calculations for fixed-wing aircraft to jokingly suggest that bumblebees shouldn’t be able to fly, which led to a widespread misconception of the bumblebee as an impossible freak of nature. But a bumblebee flies more like a helicopter, or an aeronautical rowboat, than a fixed-wing aircraft.

“High speed photography or use of strobe lights will display that the insects more or less ‘row’ their bodies through the air,” University of California, Davis bee expert Eric Mussen wrote in an email. “The wings twist at their connection to the body to increase and decrease their ‘push’ against the air as they move forward and back. That is how a bumblebee manages to fly its huge body around with relatively small wings.”

To aid that rowboat motion, the bumblebee’s rear wings are attached to their front wings by a series of hooks called hamuli or hammulae. That’s why a lot of people might think bumblebees only have two wings.

“Hamuli hook the two wings together and allows the bee to move each pair in unison, instead of moving each wing at a different frequency than the other,” Rangel-Posada said.

Nye was also slightly off when saying the abdomen of a bee acts like a spring. But not completely off. With small insects, the lengthening and shortening of muscles is not sufficient to beat the wings fast enough to keep them flying. But part of their body does act to give them a little boost.

“The thorax (not abdomen) of flying insects is set up in such a way that a very small movement of a muscle is magnified through a thoracic, flexible, lever system that makes the wings move a large distance with hardly any change in muscle length,” Mussen said.

Bumblebees beat their wings very fast, with reports pegging their speed at up to 240 beats per second. Some other kinds of bees exploit their fast wing-beats to surprising -- and deadly -- ends. When Japanese honeybees encounter their archenemy, the giant Asian hornet, they swarm around it in a deadly sphere. The heat generated by the flight muscles of hundreds of honeybees beating at once can heat the center of the “bee ball” up to 115 degrees Fahrenheit, roasting the enemy alive.

Bill Nye fans shouldn’t despair -- science isn’t about being right 100 percent of the time, it’s often more about getting things wrong and then learning from that! And that’s why, as the Science Guy says, science rules.

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