Wednesday, 3 September 2008

How bumblebees fly. And how to be a flyswatter virtuoso

beeWell, there's another one for the history books. Another trope is dead. For years people have been pointing to scientists' inability to explain how bumblebees could fly, given their bulk and small wings, as the outstanding example of how much we still had to learn.

But Edward Willett of Hassenpfeffer tells us that Michael Dickinson has now illuminated that particular mystery.
More recently, Dickinson combined robotic modeling with slow-motion video to at last answer the question of how honeybees, heavy insects with short wing beats, generate enough lift to fly, in apparent defiance of the calculations of aeronautical engineers.

Dickinson found that bees have an incredibly complex wing beat. The wing sweeps back in a ninety-degree arc, then flips over as it turns, all this happening astonishing 230 times a second. Like the rotation of a propeller, this generates more lift than the ordinary wing beats of larger insects.

This is an impressive accomplishment. Dickinson has also studied the flight pattern of flies, and has used his studies to tell us how to better yield a flyswatter.
“It is best,” says Dickinson, “not to swat at the fly’s starting position, but rather to aim a bit forward of that to anticipate where the fly is going to jump when it first sees your swatter.”

Well, for those of us with bad hand/eye coordination, that is not highly useful advice. But never fear. The Walrus comes to the rescue.

Killing flies is a very easy thing. Like the proverbial frog in the pot, flies do not react to slow change. Position the flyswatter over a resting fly very slowly until it's just a few inches away. Then a sudden swat, and the fly is history. They just can't fly fast enough to get out of the swatter's airspace in time.

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