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Listener Mail: Where the "Bumblebee Can't Fly" Myth Came From

March 06, 2015

We recently had a great email from one of our listeners, Daniel Schechter in Spokane, Washington, who gave us the backstory about where the "science says bumblebees can't fly" idea came from. A few weeks back, Desiree Schell interviewed Dave Goulson, author of the book "A Sting In The Tale", and this topic came up. While neither our intrepid host nor our excellent guest knew the answer to this, one of our listeners sent us the following:

I recently listened to the show about bees, and was surprised when the interviewee said he didn't know the origin of the old saw about bumblebees being unable to fly. The way I've heard it expressed is "According to science, bumblebees can't fly."

Several decades ago Scientific American magazine ran an article about non-steady-state aerodynamics. I have the impression that this was at that time a very young discipline, but I could be misremembering that. In any case, according to the article, aerodynamics is divided into two areas: steady-state and non-steady-state.

Steady-state aerodynamics explains how airplanes fly, and also can explain most bird flight, but was indeed unable to explain the flight of bumblebees. (And perhaps other insects.) Thus there was, when I was a child, no scientific understanding of how bees fly.

But science progressed, as it is wont to do, and the field of non-steady-state aerodynamics was developed and was able to explain the flight of bumblebees. An example I remember clearly from the article is that when a pigeon takes off from the ledge of a building, there is often an audible clapping sound as its wings strike each other, and during this brief time, its aerodynamics are non-stead-state.

But of course, the popular mind often lags decades or centuries behind the science, and so yet today some people will repeat that science cannot explain the flight of bumblebees. It can and does explain it quite well, but half a century ago it was not yet able to. And there, I would imagine, is the origin of the popular misconception.

Thanks Daniel! It was great to hear from you, and thanks also for letting us share your feedback with our other listeners!

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