Tag Archives: Classical Mechanics

Of Honeybees and Helicopters

A trend that I’ve always found quite galling is the bantering about of “well-known facts” that are, in fact, complete myths — especially those that  skitter up against science for a moment before careening off into Cloud-Cuckoo Land.
Case in point: this particularly treacly bit of nonsense, intended as a Motivational Thought:

Gaaah! What nonsense!
Gaaah! What nonsense!

By the way, yes — it’s that Mary Kay, the MLM cosmetics queen who left behind a personal fortune of nearly $98 million, and whose personal motto was “God first, family second, career third.” But that is another rant for another day

Here is the real story, according to Cecil Adams at The Straight Dope:

“According to an account at physics.org, the story was initially circulated in German technical universities in the 1930s. Supposedly during dinner a biologist asked an aerodynamics expert about insect flight.The aerodynamicist did a few calculations and found that, according to the accepted theory of the day, bumblebees didn’t generate enough lift to fly.

“Hummeln nicht fliegen! Mein Gott!!!”

The biologist, delighted to have a chance to show up those arrogant SOBs in the hard sciences, promptly spread the story far and wide.

“Once he sobered up, however, the aerodynamicist surely realized what the problem was — a faulty analogy between bees and conventional fixed-wing aircraft. Bees’ wings are small relative to their bodies. If an airplane were built the same way, it’d never get off the ground. But bees aren’t like airplanes, they’re like helicopters. 

Kind of like this, but not really.
Kind of like this, but not really.

Their wings work on the same principle as helicopter blades — to be precise, ‘reverse-pitch semirotary helicopter blades,’ to quote one authority.A moving airfoil, whether it’s a helicopter blade or a bee wing, generates a lot more lift than a stationary one.”

The take-home lesson here is that there can be quite a difference between a real-life concept and its mathematical model — especially if the initial model doesn’t reflect the structural reality.

And now for your viewing pleasure, some really, really cute bees: