Whether from a friend or even from Bee Movie, you may have heard of the idea that bees shouldn't be able to fly according to the laws of physics.
"According to all known laws of aviation, there is no way that a bee should be able to fly. Its wings are too small to get its fat little body off the ground," the opening of Bee Movie says. "The bee, of course, flies anyway. Because bees don't care what humans think is impossible."
The writers of the movie were likely referencing a much older myth, possibly dating back to the 1930s. The story goes that, one night, an aerodynamicist was talking to a biologist, who took the opportunity to ask about the flight of bees. According to the tale, the aerodynamicist did some quick calculations and concluded – based on the weight and wing area – that bees should not be able to fly at all.
Some versions of the tale name physicist Ludwig Prandtl as the bee flight-denier, others Swiss aeronautical engineer Jakob Ackeret. However, it's probable that the story is a garbled retelling of a quote from French zoologist and aeronautical engineer Antoine Magnan, who, along with his mathematician assistant André Sainte-Laguë, wanted to look at the flight of all insects.
"Tout d'abord poussé par ce qui se fait en aviation, j'ai appliqué aux insectes les lois de la résistance de l'air, et je suis arrivé avec M. Sainte-Laguë à cette conclusion que leur vol est impossible," he wrote, which translates to "first prompted by what is done in aviation, I applied the laws of air resistance to insects, and I arrived, with Mr. Sainte-Laguë, at this conclusion that their flight is impossible."
Regardless of where the initial myth came from, is it true? Of course not.
First of all, we know that bees should be able to fly according to the laws of physics because they do fly. Though they may look too big for their wings to keep them afloat, this is not evidence so compelling that we should ignore the fact that they can clearly fly, nor look for evidence of how they're cheating the laws of the universe in their endless quest to collect nectar.
Any calculations that suggest that bees or insects can't fly are incorrect calculations. For a time, scientists couldn't exactly figure out how bees flew, even though they beat their wings 230 times a second, but this was partly down to the assumption that their small wings were rigid.
"Understanding bee wings was key to figuring out how bees could fly. Their wings are not rigid, but twist and rotate during flight. Bee wings make short, quick sweeping motions front and back, front and back. This motion creates enough lift to make it possible for bees to fly," Arizona State University's Ask a Biologist series explains.
As they flap their wings they create mini vortices in the air. These tiny vortices have lower pressure than the air around them, helping to get and keep the bees airborne.
In short, we didn't know how bees flew for a while, but now we do. And nobody is breaking any laws of physics.
All “explainer” articles are confirmed by fact checkers to be correct at time of publishing. Text, images, and links may be edited, removed, or added to at a later date to keep information current.