The effect of wing flexibility on aerodynamic force production has emerged as a central question in insect flight research. However, physical and computational models have yielded conflicting results regarding whether wing deformations enhance or diminish flight forces. By experimentally stiffening the wings of live bumblebees, we demonstrate that wing flexibility affects aerodynamic force production in a natural behavioural context. Bumblebee wings were artificially stiffened in vivo by applying a micro-splint to a single flexible vein joint, and the bees were subjected to load-lifting tests. Bees with stiffened wings showed an 8.6 per cent reduction in maximum vertical aerodynamic force production, which cannot be accounted for by changes in gross wing kinematics, as stroke amplitude and flapping frequency were unchanged. Our results reveal that flexible wing design and the resulting passive deformations enhance vertical force production and load-lifting capacity in bumblebees, locomotory traits with important ecological implications.