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Jorge Barrios/Wikimedia Commons

ScienceShot: Bumblebees Capable of Flying Higher Than Mount Everest

By: 
Lizzie Wade
2014-02-04 19:15

The last thing you’d expect to see out your airplane window is a bumblebee cruising by. But a new study suggests that the insects might be capable of such high-altitude jaunts. Researchers trapped six male bumblebees (pictured) living at an altitude of 3250 meters in Sichuan, China, and placed them, one at a time, in a plexiglass flight chamber. Then they slowly pumped air out of the box, simulating the atmospheric conditions at higher and higher altitudes. Impressively, only one bee failed to fly above 8000 meters, and two even remained airborne above 9000 meters—more than 100 meters higher than the peak of Mount Everest. So what makes for successful high-altitude flying? The highest flyers didn’t beat their wings any more often than they did at low altitudes; instead, they increase what the researchers call their “stroke amplitude.” That is, they widened their wings’ range of motion, moving them farther back and farther forward during each stroke in order to compensate for the lack of air pressure, the team reports online today in Biology Letters. Next up? Seeing if female bumblebees, which have smaller wings and, therefore, a shorter range of motion, have the same high-flying potential as their brothers.

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