Wing Flexibility Improves Bumblebee Flight Stability

J Exp Biol. 2016 Nov 1;219(Pt 21):3384-3390. doi: 10.1242/jeb.133157. Epub 2016 Sep 16.


Insect wings do not contain intrinsic musculature to change shape, but rather bend and twist passively during flight. Some insect wings feature flexible joints along their veins that contain patches of resilin, a rubber-like protein. Bumblebee wings exhibit a central resilin joint (1m-cu) that has previously been shown to improve vertical force production during hovering flight. In this study, we artificially stiffened bumblebee (Bombus impatiens) wings in vivo by applying a micro-splint to the 1m-cu joint, and measured the consequences for body stability during forward flight in both laminar and turbulent airflow. In laminar flow, bees with stiffened wings exhibited significantly higher mean rotation rates and standard deviation of orientation about the roll axis. Decreasing the wing's flexibility significantly increased its projected surface area relative to the oncoming airflow, likely increasing the drag force it experienced during particular phases of the wing stroke. We hypothesize that higher drag forces on stiffened wings decrease body stability when the left and right wings encounter different flow conditions. Wing splinting also led to a small increase in body rotation rates in turbulent airflow, but this change was not statistically significant, possibly because bees with stiffened wings changed their flight behavior in turbulent flow. Overall, we found that wing flexibility improves flight stability in bumblebees, adding to the growing appreciation that wing flexibility is not merely an inevitable liability in flapping flight, but can enhance flight performance.

Keywords: Drag force; Flapping flight; Insect flight; Morphology; Resilin; Turbulence.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Air Movements
  • Animals
  • Bees / physiology*
  • Behavior, Animal
  • Biomechanical Phenomena
  • Flight, Animal / physiology*
  • Wings, Animal / physiology*