A flying bumblebee

The facts & the project

The elegance of bees and the heaviness of bumblebees are often opposed to each other. However, after musicians, physicists are now deeply concerned about this small least-liked insect. Because the flight of a bumblebee is seen as a valuable wealth of information for conceiving the next generations of micro-drones.

For flying, the bumblebee flaps its wings a hundred times per second, waving air around him and creating vortices. But far from being handicapping, these turbulences are “lifting” him and he has no need of exerting more energy to stay aloft in turbulent air flow than in smooth air.

The results

It is the result achieved by Kai Schneider, researcher at the Laboratoire de mécanique, modélisation et procédés propres (Aix Marseille University/CNRS), and his team. For performing it, these specialists of fluid/structure interactions have realised a “numerical wind tunnel” in which they inserted a model bumblebee at a speed of 2.5 meters per second. “By using up to 16,000 computing cores, we have shown that the bumblebee is able to control its flight and adapt it to the turbulent conditions in a few microseconds until the intensity of vortices becomes too strong”, Kai Schneider said. 

This work is carried out in the context of an international project involving German (Technical University of Berlin and University of Rostock) and Japanese (Chiba University) researchers. It has been published in Physical Review Letters, the reference journal of the field, and in Physics, a digital publication for the general public from the American Physical Society (APS).

This year, the research team is facing new challenges: After the bumblebee, solving the mystery of the flight of the hawkmoth before studying fish swimming. Animal locomotion is a never-ending source of examples for bioinspired technologies.