Bumblebees are small all-weather foragers, capable of flying despite tough conditions. Given the trouble that micro air vehicles have when flying in gusty winds, bumblebees can help engineers to understand how nature successfully deals with turbulence. Under smooth laminar conditions like those shown in the animation above, bumblebees stay aloft by beating their wings forward and backward in a figure-8-like motion. On both the forward downstroke and the backward upstroke, you’ll notice a blue bulge near the front of the bee’s wing. This is a leading-edge vortex, which provides much of the bee’s lift.
Researchers were curious how adding turbulence would affect their virtual bee’s flight. The still image above shows the bee in moderate freestream turbulence (shown in cyan). Surprisingly, this outside turbulence has very little effect on the flow generated by the bee, shown in pink. In fact, the researchers found that the bees could fly through turbulence without a significant increase in power. Too much turbulence does make it hard for the bee to control its flight, though. The bee’s shape makes it prone to rolling, and the researchers estimated, based on a bee’s 20 ms reaction time, that bumblebees can probably only correct that roll and maintain controlled flight at turbulence intensities less than 63% of the mean wind speed. (Image credits: T. Engels et al., source; via Physics Focus)