"Bees are living proof that it's possible to engineer airborne vehicles that are agile, navigationally competent, weigh less than 100 milligrams, and can fly around the world using the energy given by an ounce of honey," says Mandyam Srinivasan. (Credit: Brian Hoffmann/Flickr)

Tiny flying machines take a lesson from honeybees

To develop insect-sized robot aircraft, researchers are harnessing secrets of how honeybees fly.

Honeybees use a combination of what they feel and see to streamline their bodies and gain maximum “fuel efficiency” by positioning their bodies for swift flight, a new study shows.

“These bees are living proof that it’s possible to engineer airborne vehicles that are agile, navigationally competent, weigh less than 100 milligrams, and can fly around the world using the energy given by an ounce of honey,” says Mandyam Srinivasan, professor at Queensland Brain Institute (QBI) at the University of Queensland.

“Honeybees often have to travel very long distances with only a small amount of nectar, so they have to be as fuel-efficient as possible. They achieve this by raising their abdomen to reduce drag so they can fly at high speeds while using less energy.”

Eyes and abs

Previous research has shown that honeybees used their eyes to sense the airspeed and move their abdomens accordingly, says Gavin Taylor of QBI.

“When we trick a honeybee into thinking that it’s flying forward by running background images past its eyes, the bee will move its body into a flying position despite being tethered.

“The faster we move the images, the higher it lifts its abdomen to prepare for rapid flight.

“However, if we blow wind directly at it without running any images, the bee raises its abdomen for only a little while. This means that they rely on their vision to regulate their flights.”

For the study, published in Scientific Reports, the team created a headwind and ran background images simultaneously, and found the bee raised its abdomen much higher than when the fan was switched off, indicating the streamlining response was also driven by airflow.

The honeybee senses airflow with its antenna, Srinivasan says.

“As soon as we immobilized the bee’s antenna, its streamlining response was reduced as it relied only on its eyes.”

The research could help develop tiny “robotbee” aircraft.

“A better understanding of how these honeybees fly takes us one step further towards perfecting these flying machines.”

Source: University of Queensland

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2 Comments

  1. Jordan Johnson

    Great article. Except, I think that’s a picture of a Hoverfly (family Syrphidae), a family of flies that have developed coloring to mimic bees, rather than an actual bee.

  2. Futurity-Jenny Leonard

    Jordan, you’re correct. We’ve replaced the photo. Thanks for letting us know.

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