The flight of the Bumblebee becomes more impressive: Scientists now believe this humble insect could fly over Mount Everest

Bumblebees are able to fly at altitudes that would suffocate other creatures

Science Editor

The flight of the bumblebee – once thought to be aerodynamically impossible – has proven to be even more scientifically astounding than previously believed following a study showing how the humble insect is able to fly high enough to pass over Mount Everest.

Researchers have discovered that a species of Chinese bumblebee is still capable of flight when the air pressure falls to a level equivalent to an altitude of 9,000 metres – more than enough to fly over the 8,848-metre-high peak of the greatest mountain in the world.

Video recordings of bumblebees flying in a barometric chamber where the air pressure is allowed to fall to levels that would suffocate most other animals show that the bees continue to fly by altering the angle of their wings to increase their amplitude as they flap back and forth.

Scientists found that even when the concentrations of oxygen reached perilously low levels as the density of the air fell inside the chamber, the bumblebees still managed active flight in conditions equivalent to the thin air on top of the highest mountain range.

The bumblebees effectively increased the force produced by their flapping wings to compensate for the thinness of the air, rather than increasing the wing-beat rate, said Michael Dillon of the University of Wyoming, who led the study published in the journal Biology Letters.

“So the roughly 60 per cent decline in air density has to be matched by a 60 per cent increase in force production – a remarkable feat when you also consider that they are doing this in such low oxygen,” Professor Dillon said.

“A hovering bumblebee has an oxygen demand that is roughly 15 to 20 times that of an elite athlete, yet in our experiments they are meeting this demand in spite of a greatly reduced supply – the partial pressure of oxygen is less than a third of sea-level values,” he said.


The experimenters captured wild bumblebees belonging to the species Bombus impetuosus which forages for nectar and pollen in the mountains near Rilong in Sichuan province of China. Within 10 minutes of being captured they were placed in a barometric chamber and their flight filmed as the air pressure was slowly lowered.

The images revealed that the bees increased the angular velocity of their wings by increasing the amplitude of each wing stroke while maintaining a constant wing-beat frequency. The flight angle of the bee increased as a result of the shift, the researchers found.

“This extreme flight performance is likely to be biologically relevant in other contexts. For example, bumblebees fill up on nectar and pollen so that they can deliver these resources back to the hive and feed developing young,” Professor Dillon said.

“Flying with a large load is much more challenging than flying empty. Similarly, performing rapid forward flight and evasive manoeuvres to avoid predators both likely require enhanced flight performance,” he explained.

Not many flying animals could operate under such thin-air conditions and although insects have been found floating at very high altitudes, this is because they have been blown there by the wind.

“There are a few other documented examples of organisms flying over Everest, such as bar-headed geese, and there are many records of insect sightings as high as 5,000 to 6,000 metres in the Himalayas,” Professor Dillon said.

“However, to our knowledge, this is the highest record of an insect flying in reduced barometric pressures, that is, when challenged with both reductions in air density and oxygen. So, I think it is safe to say that it is very unusual, and even more so for insects,” he said.

Voices
The Sumatran tiger, endemic to the Indonesian island of Sumatra, is an endangered species
voicesJonathon Porritt: The wild tiger population is thought to have dropped by 97 per cent since 1900
Arts and Entertainment
Beast would strip to his underpants and take to the stage with a slogan scrawled on his bare chest whilst fans shouted “you fat bastard” at him
musicIndie music promoter was was a feature at Carter gigs
News
news
Arts and Entertainment
Story line: Susanoo slays the Yamata no Orochi serpent in the Japanese version of a myth dating back 40,000 years
arts + entsApplying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
Performers dressed as Tunnocks chocolate teacakes, a renowned Scottish confectionary, perform during the opening ceremony of the 2014 Commonwealth Games at Celtic Park in Glasgow on July 23, 2014.
news
Life and Style
Popular plonk: Lambrusco is selling strong
Food + drinkNaff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz
News
Gardai wait for the naked man, who had gone for a skinny dip in Belfast Lough
newsTwo skinny dippers threatened with inclusion on sex offenders’ register as naturists criminalised
News
Shake down: Michelle and Barack Obama bump knuckles before an election night rally in Minnesota in 2008, the 'Washington Post' called it 'the fist bump heard round the world'
newsThe pound, a.k.a. the dap, greatly improves hygiene
Arts and Entertainment
La Roux
music
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Fellows as John Shuttleworth
comedySean O'Grady joins Graham Fellows down his local Spar
News
people
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
News
Ross Burden pictured in 2002
people
News
Elisabeth Murdoch: The 44-year-old said she felt a responsibility to 'stand up and be counted’'
media... says Rupert Murdoch
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Extras
indybest
Sport
Arsenal signing Calum Chambers
sportGunners complete £16m transfer of Southampton youngster
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

ICT Teacher

£21804 - £31868 per annum: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Are you a qualified ...

DT Design and Technology Teacher

£21804 - £31868 per annum: Randstad Education Chelmsford: We are urgently for ...

Maths Teacher

£21804 - £31868 per annum: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Are you an experienc...

Junior / Graduate Application Support Engineer

£26000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly successful international media organ...

Day In a Page

The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

The air strikes were tragically real

The children were playing in the street with toy guns
Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

Britain as others see us

Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them altogether

Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them

Jonathon Porritt sounds the alarm
How did our legends really begin?

How did our legends really begin?

Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

Lambrusco is back on the menu

Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz
A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

A new Russian revolution

Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

Standing my ground

If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
The man who dared to go on holiday

The man who dared to go on holiday

New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

The Guest List 2014

Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

Jokes on Hollywood

With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on