Harvard Professor Andrew Mountcastle: “They’re basically aerial tankers.”
Bees can haul up to half their own body weight in pollen, according to a team of researchers led by Harvard biologist Andrew Mountcastle.
By comparison, a Boeing 747-400 can only safely transport an additional third of its empty weight (an empty 747-400 weighs approximately 600 pounds; fully loaded, it weighs about 900 lbs).
“What might be surprising to many people is just how much load [the bees are] able to carry,” said lead researcher and Harvard biologist Andrew Mountcastle. “They’re basically aerial tankers.”
Mountcastle and his colleagues set out to study how a bumblebee’s flight performance is affected by the type of load (either pollen or nectar). Bees carry pollen affixed to their legs, and nectar in their abdominal region. Bees are able to store enough nectar to double their body weight.
The scientists kicked off the study by ordering a hive of bumblebees online (“It always excites the Fedex guy when he drops off a buzzing hive at your front door,” said Mountcastle).
Bee flight performance was measured by gluing tiny ball bearings to the bees, either to their legs or abdomens, and sent them buzzing down a wind tunnel with a fake “flower” at the end of it. The bees’ were filmed with a high-speed camera.
Surprisingly, the film revealed that they were more stable flying with weight on their legs (as they do when they are gathering pollen) than their abdomens, but less nimble. Full results of the study were published in an online report the National Academy of Sciences.
New bee experiments are focusing on whether the weather conditions influence whether bees choose to gather pollen or nectar.