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The bumblebee conundrum

Why do some people believe bees shouldn’t be able to fly? For the same reason others believe in Nessie or that climate change is a hoax

Photo: Getty images

It’s one of the most comforting ideas of our turbulent age: that according to science, bumblebees can’t fly. The 2007 film Bee Movie began: “According to all known laws of aviation, there is no way that a bee should be able to fly. Its wings are too small to get its fat body off the ground. The bee of course flies anyway. Because bees don’t care what humans think is impossible.”

We live in a world full of bumblebees obviously – flagrantly – quite shamelessly flying from flower to flower, yet science tells us that they can’t. Science clearly doesn’t know what it’s talking about, therefore all scientific ideas are open to question and can be rejected according to taste.

Or so we like to think. In a moment I will tell you how bumblebees fly, and I expect that like me, you’ll find it marvellously complex and thrillingly simple at the same time. But the knowledge comes at the price of busting a beloved myth.

Like all myths, the bumblebee story came about because we need it. It’s important that science and scientists look daft: it means that the rest of us can take all scientific ideas on a pick n mix basis, rejecting the ones we find bothersome.

The bumblebee myth has various origin stories, generally centring on a public dinner for scientists in the 1930s. An aerodynamicist and an entomologist were placed next to each other and found common ground in the flight of the bumblebee – and the master of aerodynamics was unable to explain it.

If this pair of scientists ever existed the aerodynamicist was operating on insufficient or incorrect information, which the entomologist was unable to correct at the time. But first a look at some inconvenient scientific truths:

Heliocentrism

The idea that the earth moves round the sun, rather than the other way round, goes back to the third century AD, and the first mathematical explanation came from Nicolaus Copernicus in the 16th century. But it was Galileo Galilei who got into trouble for it. His 1615 publication was condemned by the Inquisition, because it contradicts the Bible and puts into question the precise physical location of heaven and hell. These days we’re pretty much over the controversy, but it remains a classical example of the way authority deals with threatening truths. Galileo was forced to recant and spent the rest of his life under house arrest.

Plate tectonics

The apparently ridiculous idea that continents march about the globe makes sudden intuitive sense if you look at the way South America fits so snugly into Africa. But the idea required a drastic paradigm shift after it had been proposed by Alfred Wegener in 1912. Part of this was robust scientific debate; part of it was the lay public’s response: this can’t be true because it makes me feel queasy.

Evolution (1)

When Charles Darwin showed how evolution works by natural selection, there was widespread and horrified rejection. The main reason for this was actually omitted from On the Origin of Species, published in 1859, but it was still frighteningly obvious: humans must be bound by the same principle. “Is man an ape or an angel?” asked Benjamin Disraeli. “Now I am on the side of the angels.” Many people still prefer to believe that humans are separate from the rest of creation: the direct intervention of God.

Evolution (2)

Nowadays most educated people accept evolution – but prefer a wrong and distorted understanding of it. They believe evolution is about progress, moving towards a goal of perfection, of which we humans are both the finest example and the most obvious proof. But evolution has no goals. It sheds complex adaptations for simplicity whenever simplicity gives a better chance of survival. The classic image called The March of Progress – scampering money, knuckle-walking ape, stooping hominid, glorious upright western male – is a fantasy. A monkey is not a failed ape, an ape is not a failed human. The flea that bites us all is as fully evolved as you are.

Origin of life

Life began as a chemical response to favourable conditions, and came from relatively simple organic compounds. The idea was around in the 19th century; Darwin speculated on it with his customary insightfulness. Again, it departs from biblical literalism and offends human species-pride. We deal with it by telling ourselves “how far” we have “risen” from the primordial soup.

The subconscious

Sigmund Freud first used the term in 1893, later preferring “unconscious”. His lifelong study of psychoanalysis is at base a revelation that we don’t always know or understand why we do stuff. Darwin showed us we are animals; Freud showed us that we are not even rational animals. We may be prepared to accept such a thing in other people – but surely we ourselves are different…

The Loch Ness Monster

We like the idea that there are still monsters lurking about somewhere, like Bigfoot, the yeti and the Surrey Puma. There is a pseudoscience called cryptobiology, and it’s probably based on a misunderstanding of proper scientific caution: “there is no evidence” doesn’t mean that evidence is likely to turn up any moment. But the idea that hidden monsters might possibly exist is too much fun to allow negative data to spoil it.

Pollution

The idea that ecocidal chemicals cause lasting damage to the environment was first explained in Rachel Carson’s 1962 work Silent Spring. Her conclusions were demonised; there was much misinformation from agribusiness, and many attacks on her personally, many of them gender-based. The fact that damaging nature damages humanity is still accepted with reluctance in many places, despite its obvious truth.

Tobacco

The first evidence that smoking causes cancer was met with a sustained campaign of hushing-up and misinformation from the tobacco industry. This has caused many deaths and massive costs to health services. There was a famous advertising campaign: “More doctors smoke Camel than any other cigarettes.”

Vaccination

Vaccinations hurt, can make you poorly for a day or two and requires trust: all good reasons to seek an excuse to avoid them. Vax-refusers, often driven by ridiculous conspiracy theories, undoubtedly made the pandemic longer and more severe than it needed to be.

Climate change

Last year’s COP-28 was attended by many lobbyists from the oil industry. The event’s president, Dr Sultan Al-Jaber, told the world that there was “no science” behind plans to phase out fossil fuels in order to restrict temperature to 1.5 degrees. Oil companies have supplied vast quantities of misinformation, widely and gleefully accepted. Meanwhile the temperature continues to rise.

Science rejection has kept us cosy and comfortable across the centuries. Science doesn’t know everything, we tell ourselves happily. After all, according to science a bumblebee can’t fly.

The aerodynamicist at the dinner-table presumably made some false assumptions. These could be any one of the following, or a combination.

He was thinking of a fixed-winged aircraft: bumblebees can fly but they can’t glide a yard, any more than a helicopter can.

He had no idea how fast a bee’s wings can move: 230 times a second, powered not by muscles directly attached to the wings but by pairs of muscles, contracting and extending in turn, that allow the wings to oscillate. Small wings beating very fast can shift as much air as large wings beating slowly.

He assumed a bee’s wing go up and down. They don’t: it’s more forwards and backwards, and as they beat, each of the four wings describes a figure-of-eight, so the leading edge is turned backwards in the recovery stroke, minimising the negative effect this has on both thrust and lift.

He assumed the bee’s wings are smooth, like an aeroplane’s. But they’re rough: bumblebees want the air to stick rather than flow smoothly over the wings.

He didn’t take into account that for a small thing like a bee, the air feels much stickier: air resistance is a very powerful idea for a bee, less so for a human. As the wings beat they create a series of leading edge vortices that cling to the wings. These create negative air pressure: and this pulls the bee upwards.

So – well, sorry to be a spoilsport, but science has no objection to the flight of the bumblebee, and is perfectly capable of explaining how they stay in the air.

And while I’m being a spoilsport, I should point out that the sun is the centre of the solar system, the continents are not fixed, humans share a common ancestor with monkeys, evolution does not pursue the goal of perfection, life developed from unliving material, you are fundamentally irrational, there is no Loch Ness Monster, humans are destroying their own environment, tobacco smoking can kill you, vaccinations prevent diseases and climate change is the biggest crisis to hit the planet since its collision with an asteroid 66 million years ago.

So yes – I can explain how a bumblebee can fly. I can also explain why many people would prefer to believe that I can’t.

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