Why Moths Are Slow Fliers

A composite image showing the real hawkmoth on the right and a digital version used in simulation on the left.

Hawkmoths and other insects are slow fliers compared to birds, even ones that can hover. To understand why these insects top out at 5 m/s, researchers simulated their flight from hovering to forward flight at 4 m/s. They analyzed real hawkmoths flying in wind tunnels to build their simulated insects, then studied their digital moths with computational fluid dynamics.

During hovering flight, they found that hawkmoths generate equal amounts of lift with their upstroke and downstroke. As the moth transitions into forward flight, though, its wing orientation shifts to reduce drag, and the upstroke stops being so helpful. Instead, the upstroke generates a downward lift that the downstroke has to counter in addition to the insect’s weight. At higher forward speeds, this trend gets even worse.

The final verdict? Hawkmoths don’t have the flexibility to twist their wings on the upstroke the way birds do to avoid that large downward lift. Since they can’t mitigate that negative lift, the insects have a slower top speed overall. (Image and research credit: S. Lionetti et al.; via APS Physics; submitted by Kam-Yung Soh)

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