mapping bee flight

It's one thing the birds and the bees have in common: They can both fly.

By marking bee's wings, scientists hope to learn how the insects manage their elaborate, curving strokes in flight.

But when it comes to the bees, scientists still aren't sure how. The insects seem to defy all classical laws of aerodynamics. 

Now, using technology that has helped keep Boeing planes and NASA spacecraft soaring, researchers at the University of Washington hope to solve the mystery.

Making Bee Maps
The research uses a unique paint that glows under ultraviolet light at varying intensity according to air pressure. It will provide the first quantitative answers to how honey bees keep aloft, say the researchers, who come from zoology, chemistry and physics backgrounds.

They plan to map the lift pressure across the bee wing during flight. That would show where the force comes from to get the bees out of the hive.*

It could also help in the creation of miniature flying robots called "micro-air vehicles."

Previous research has shown that a bee's wings bend and slice through the air, carving figure 8s at a rate of 200 beats a second. The elaborate, curving strokes create vortexes and currents that allow maneuvering and hovering flight.

But much of that research has been based on models or computer simulations. Scientists are excited about the possibility of having hard data to analyze.

"The predictions are great, but without experimental data, they're just predictions," said Tom Daniel, a zoology professor involved in the experiment.

Bees in the Fridge
Another researcher, physicist John Wettlaufer, will share McGraw's data with researchers at the Courant Institute of Applied Mathematics at New York University to see how theories about insect flight hold up.

For the experiment, McGraw knocks the bees out by sticking them in a refrigerator. She places a drop of fast-drying, bright red paint on each wing, and the next step is to use a digital camera to capture changes in lift pressure on the wings. The camera is still being built by a commercial company.

One problem the scientists ran into was finding a mixture of pressure-sensitive paint that would work. Until now, the paint - developed by UW chemistry professors Martin Gouterman, Gamal Khalil and James Callis to study lift on airplanes and spacecraft - had only been used to study pressure on inanimate objects.

Dozens of formulas were tested to find a mix that would let the bees keep flying. Appropriately, the successful mix combines luminescent compounds with beeswax.