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Wings generate lift: honeybee


Apis mellifera / Luc Viatour / LicenseCC-by-sa - Attribution Share Alike

The wings of a honeybee generate lift by arcing back and flipping over on the return.

"The notion that engineers once 'proved' that bees can't fly has become an urban myth. So partly to restore the reputation of the profession, Michael Dickinson decided to investigate the forces at work during honeybee flight.

In 1996, Charlie Ellington at the University of Cambridge showed how vortices rolling along the leading edge of the wing were the vital source of lift for most insects. But this can't explain how a heavy insect with a short wing beat, such as a bee, generates enough lift to fly.

Dickinson and his colleagues at Caltech in Pasadena, California, filmed hovering bees at 6000 frames per second, and plotted the unusual pattern of wing beats. The wing sweeps back in a 90-degree arc, then flips over as it returns — 230 times a second. The team made a robot to scale to measure the forces involved.

It is the more exotic forces created as the wing changes direction that dominate, says Dickinson. Additional vortices are produced by the rotation of the wing. 'It's like a propeller, where the blade is rotating too,' he says. Also, the wing flaps back into its own wake, which leads to higher forces than flapping in still air. Lastly, there is 'added-mass force' which peaks at the end of each stroke and comes from the acceleration of the wing after it changes direction." (Phillips 2005:17)
About the inspiring organism
Med_apis_mellifera_carnica_drone_postnatal_2 honey bee
Apis mellifera Linnaeus
Common name: Honey bee

Learn more at
Some organism data provided by: ITIS: The Integrated Taxonomic Information System
Organism/taxonomy data provided by:
Species 2000 & ITIS Catalogue of Life: 2008 Annual Checklist

IUCN Red List Status: Unknown

Bioinspired products and application ideas

Application Ideas: Propeller designs, gliders or other small-scale maneuverable aircraft.

Industrial Sector(s) interested in this strategy: Aviation

Dickinson Lab
Michael Dickinson
Caltech (California Institute of Technology)
Helen Phillips. 2005. The aerodynamic tricks that keep bees airborne. New Scientist. 188(2528):
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