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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment
All in a day's work: the players in the forthcoming 'Posh People: Inside Tatler'
TVGrace Dent thinks we should learn to 'hug a Hooray Henry', because poshness is an accident of birth
News
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.
peopleFormer Newsnight presenter is being touted for a brand new role
News
The two-year-old said she cut off her fringe because it was getting in her eyes
news
Arts and Entertainment
Avatar grossed $2.8bn at the box office after its release in 2009
film
Sport
football
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

Recruitment Genius: Sales Manager

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: If you have experience of B2B s...

Citifocus Ltd: German Speaking Client Specialist

£Attractive Package: Citifocus Ltd: Prestigious asset management house seeks a...

Citifocus Ltd: Performance & Risk Oversight

£Negotiable: Citifocus Ltd: This is a varied role focusing on the firm's mutua...

Recruitment Genius: Executive Assistant

£20000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of Scotland's leading train...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

Christmas Appeal

Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

Is it always right to try to prolong life?

Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

What does it take for women to get to the top?

Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

French chefs campaign against bullying

A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

Paul Scholes column

I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game