Here's How 'Surfer' Bees Generate Waves to Escape Water

Published on December 26th 2019
With the responsibility of running a humming hive resting on their short wings, a worker bee’s life is not all sunshine and roses.
One of nature’s great multitaskers, in their short lifetime, the female worker bee takes on several formidable roles within a busy beehive. It’s an almost sacrificial existence, where the hard work benefits the colony rather than the individual.
There can be up to 80,000 worker bees in a colony. The industrious insects are responsible for hive housekeeping, such as feeding larvae, collecting pollen and nectar, as well as producing wax for construction. Interestingly, even the regulation of a hive’s temperature is controlled by squadron’s of the small bees.
It’s this latter function that can sometimes lead the worker bee into a spot of bother, however. Now scientists have documented a pretty incredible quirk of nature that helps the insects get out of perilous and watery situations.
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Surf’s up

Yes, a hidden talent of the worker bee has been revealed. It turns out that the insects are more than just welcome pollinators to your garden.
Outside of their more obvious skills, worker bees are mighty swimmers and can generate their own surf. According to new research by scientists at the California Institute of Technology, the surfing skills allow the bees to navigate water and escape certain death if they ever get caught out.
"On hot days, beehives require water to cool off," Caltech research engineer Chris Roh says. "So when the temperature rises, workers are sent out to gather water instead of pollen."
Roh’s interest in the subject was soon piqued and he inadvertently began to study the bee’s cooling-off tasks when he spotted one struggling in water. Noticing how ripples were being generated around the bee as it moved across the surface of a pond, Roh said he took the bee home to study its movements inside a lab.
"I was very excited to see this behaviour and so I brought the honeybee back to the lab to take a look at it more closely," Roh said.
Along with Mory Gharib, Professor of Aeronautics and Bioinspired Engineering, Roh recreated the conditions of a pond surface. The duo then studied 33 Pasadena honeybees on the surface of their test pond, scooping the insects from the water after a few minutes to allow them to recover.
In their observation, the pair found that when a bee lands on water, its wings are robbed it of the ability to fly. However, the troublesome stickiness between the wings and water also allows the bee to drag its way forward.
"The motion of the bee's wings creates a wave that its body is able to ride forward," Gharib says. "It hydrofoils, or surfs, toward safety."
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Slo-mo bee footage

A slow-motion video of the incredible phenomenon shows how a bee’s wing beats can generate a potentially life-saving asymmetrical wave pattern.
With shallow flaps or beats, a bees' wings curve downward when pushing against the water and curve upward on the return beat.
This motion creates thrust, according to the study, propelling a bee forward with a force of about 20 millionths of a Newton.
"Water is three orders of magnitude heavier than air, which is why it traps bees. But that weight is what also makes it useful for propulsion," Roh says.
The duo’s paper on the nifty bee waves has now been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal.
The plan is to next take their findings and bring it into the world of robotics research.
They hope that by recreating the bee’s surfing motion, a nature-inspired robot capable of both flying and swimming could be manufactured. Pretty cool, huh?
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