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Caught a bumblebee sleeping on the job

June 14, 2016

She works hard for the honey?

“According to the theory of aerodynamics, as may be readily demonstrated through wind tunnel experiments, the bumblebee is unable to fly. This is because the size, weight and shape of his body in relation to the total wingspread make flying impossible. But the bumblebee, being ignorant of these scientific truths, goes ahead and flies anyway—and makes a little honey every day.”

The above quote is from a sign supposedly posted in a General Motors plant over 60 years ago.

Of course it’s wrong. It’s not the shape of his body but hers—virtually all bumbles we see out and about are female. And the only thing ignorant were the “scientific truths” of 80 years ago.

In 1934, French zooologist Antoine Magnan wrote in  Le Vol des Insectes, that according to his careful [mis]calculations bees shouldn’t be able to fly but that they do anyways.

This simple, wrong-headed, assertion has echoed down through the decades as bona fide scientific proof of the power of magical thinking and has been enthusiastically adapted and adopted by generations of American business leaders to help instill a can-do spirit in their worker drones.

Mary Kay Ash, the eponymous founder of Mary Kay Cosmetics, made the example of the bumblebee a key part of indoctrinating her sellers, to the point that high ranking Mary Kay distributors are awarded bee pins.

Mike Huckabee, the strongly Christian candidate for the 2008 Republican Presidential nomination, famously likened his rise to the impossible way that bumblebees flies, essentially on pure faith.

Science has subsequently gotten a pretty good idea of how bumbles and honey bees manage to fly and to give the “git ‘er done” school of thought its due, it turns out that bees basically just flap their wings really, really fast.

As a rule, the larger the flier, the slower they beat their wings. Tiny mosquitoes beat their wings about 400 times a second, slightly larger fruit flies beat their wings 230 times a second and comparatively gigantic hummingbirds only beat their wings about 50 times a second.

Conversely, in order to get the lift that their big bodies need, bees—which are 80 times larger than fruit flies—actually beat their relatively small wings at nearly the same rate as fruit flies—250 beats-per-second.

A 2009 Oxford study of bumblebee flight characterized the bumble as an inefficient tanker-truck that flies solely on brute strength and energy-rich nectar.

As a binner, I sympathize—foraging can be tiring work


Without steady nectar, bumblebees can run down like clockwork toys.

As tanker-trucks go, I  don’t know how bumblebees compare fuel efficiency-wise but I do know that they can unexpectedly run out of gas. And as busy as they’re supposed to be, it’s not that uncommon to see them sleeping on the job.

When you do see bumblebees or honey bees catching some ZZZs on a warm day in early spring or summer, as I did Monday afternoon (June 13th), it’s fair to assume that they’re resting in order to recover their depleted strength.

The bumblebee that I found on the lid of a blue container bin yesterday was typical of an exhausted bee, in that it seemed utterly (if only temporarily) prone and helpless.

In such a case, you can help revive a bee by offering it a simple solution of two tablespoons of white, granulated sugar dissolved in one tablespoon of water.  See this Moral Fibres page for instructions (and a wonderful photo of a honey bee sucking up the sugar water).

In the absence of sugar water, I was preparing to offer my bee a few drops of plain H2O. But I took to long. It recovered and flew off just as I was getting the water droplets ready.

Bees need hydration like everything else does. But my understanding is that they can only handle dew drop-like quantities of water and risk drowning in any amount too large to be constrained by surface tension.

When in doubt, just leave them to recover as best they can. If  you have the time and inclination, certainly watch over them to see that a bird doesn’t snatch them while they’re so defenseless. Whatever you do though, never give them honey for energy. Bees should, apparently only eat honey made by their own hives. Click the images to enlarge them.

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