Where insects and birds are concerned, to hover means to hang fluttering in the air by rapidly moving the wings.
A number of insects are well known for the behaviour of hovering, not least of course, the hover flies, but also for example, dragon flies and bee flies such as Bombylius major, a parasite of solitary and bumble bee species.
So what about bumble bees - do bumble bees hover?
The short answer is:
Yes, bumble bees are known to hover momentarily around flowers, and research confirms the potential of one species to hover at high elevations.
Many bee species hover at least momentarily, and especially, this behaviour can be spotted as they approach flowers. However, some bee species engage in hovering behaviour more than others. For example, wool carder bee males can often be seen patrolling patches of flowers whilst they await females. During these patrols, it is not unusual to see them hovering momentarily before darting in another direction, or darting at a female to mate.
On many occasions, I have witnessed bumble bees hovering for a second or two around flowers.
So given that bumble bees do indeed hover, are they any good at it, and what does the research say?
Scientists in China at the Beijing University of Aeronautics & Astronautics created a model bumble bee to study and measure bumble bee flight dynamics (1). The model had wings 'approximately' the same size and shape as those on real bumble bees.
They concluded that bumble bees are less stable when they hover or fly slowly, than when they fly fast. This would seem to suggest that hovering is not a particular strength for bumble bees. How this research would compare using data gathered from real bumble bees studying exactly this issue, is unclear.
A study published by the Royal Society, examined the flight performance of the alpine bumble bee, Bombus impetuosus. They found that this species of bumble bee is able to hover at conditions and height comparable with Mount Everest. The scientists remark that many insect taxa have been captured terrestrially at 5000–5200m in the Himalayas, including fly species. Butterflies have been captured in the Himalayas near 6000 m, and one of the authors of the study has observed bumble bees nesting at heights of above 4000m.
For the study, the scientists captured male specimens in Sichuan, China. They comment:
Some of their specific findings and comments were as follows:
1. Na Xu, Mao Sun. Lateral dynamic flight stability of a model bumblebee in hovering and forward flight. Journal of Theoretical Biology, 2013; 319:102 DOI: 10.1016/j.jtbi.2012.11.033
2. Dillon ME, Dudley R. Surpassing Mt. Everest: extreme flight performance of alpine bumble-bees. Biol Lett. 2014 Feb 5;10(2):20130922. doi: 10.1098/rsbl.2013.0922. PMID: 24501268; PMCID: PMC3949368.
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