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Today, at the cinema, The Ranger learnt in the opening credits of Bee Movie that:
According to all the laws of aviation it is impossible for a bee to fly…
It was a really funny film – recommended. But that opening sequence got the Ranger thinking. This is another of those scientist-bashing stories, you see. Stupid scientists get it wrong. How daft are they? Obviously bees can fly. So why do scientists persist with this patent untruth?
Actually, they don’t, and never really did. A few years ago, Boeing engineer John McMasters looked into the origins of this tale, and published an article in Scientific American (McMasters, J. H. 1989. The flight of the bumblebee and related myths of entomological engineering. Am. Sci. 77: 164″169.). He found the tale was circulating in German technical universities back in the early 1930s, in the infancy of true aerodynamic science. Further enquiries by others revealed that some observations about bumblebee flight were published in 1934 by the entomologist Antoine Magnan, who discussed a mathematical equation by André Sainte-Laguë, a mathematician. This informal work compared a bee to an aeroplane of similar size, and was based on the assumption that bees wings were more-or-less smooth, flat plates. The resulting calculations not surprisingly ‘proved’ the bee to be incapable of flight. But, of course, and crucially, bees’ wings are far from flat. As McMasters said in 1989:
The assumptions were almost wildly wrong, and the [scientist] himself later discovered part of his error by examining a bee’s wing under a microscope — but not, alas, before the myth was born in the hands of overeager journalists.
So the tale went from novelty to received wisdom overnight, and has been used to chastise scientists ever since – despite the subsequent scientific rigour of the original authors and many others having corrected their work. But does it matter? It’s a good dinner-table story, and if it raises a chuckle, so what? In fact, it does matter, because misinformation like this gives science in general a bad name, and there are plenty of people who are not reluctant to assist it. Former US presidential candidate, the ironically-named Mike Huckabee, for one, who has publicly asserted it as fact. He’s also a chap who espouses the teaching of intelligent design in schools. Really, we shouldn’t be giving this kind of argument any more ammunition than is absolutely necessary. So if the bee question is ever raised let us be proud to proclaim that bees can fly, and what’s more, we can prove it!