Bees Stuck in Water Create Waves and 'Surf' to Safety, Scientists Think

Honey bees stuck in water can create a wave to "surf" to safety, scientists believe.

When bees land on water, the liquid sticks to their wings and therefore they can't quickly fly away. To test out how bees are able to escape from such situations, researchers took a pan of water, which they let go still. They placed bees in the water and pointed a light at their tiny bodies so they would cast shadows in the container.

The team behind the study, published in the journal PNAS, watched as the bees used their wings to create waves that pushed them forward. These waves gathered behind the bees, but left the path ahead of the insects remains relatively clear. This propelled the bugs forwards.

Bees do this by curving their wings down and pushing down the water, before curving their wings up. As the bottom half of the wings are pushed forwards, the tops of the wings stay dry. The bugs swim along like this until they reach the water's edge and can fly away.

The process, known as hydrofoiling, is tiring and bees can keep it up for about 10 minutes, according to the authors.

Study co-author Chris Roh, a research engineer at California Institute of Technology, told Newsweek the wave pattern was "surprising and beautiful."

"The bees are showing us that the flapping wing systems are a viable tool for swimming on the water surface. This is quite a biological feat, considering the density of water is three times denser than that of the air," he said.

Asked how the findings contribute to our wider understanding of bees, Roh said: "Honeybees need to collect water for cooling down their hives. When collecting water the bees are exposed to many risks.

"Our findings show how they might survive when they fall on the water surface. They cannot free their wings to regain the lost aerodynamic capability, but the study shows that they can use hydrodynamic thrust to go to the shore and pull themselves out."

Roh was inspired to carry out the study after he spotted waves in Millikan Pond at Caltech.

"At first I did not know that the wave pattern was generated by the bee. I took a closer look at the water surface, and there was a honeybee struggling to swim on the water surface," Roh recalled. "I was very intrigued by the wave pattern that they generate and the mechanism of their swimming. So I brought the bee back to the lab and showed it to my advisor, [study co-author] professor Mory Gharib. He was immediately on board to study this fascinating display of locomotion," he said.

Roh concluded: "The artful lives of insects often go unnoticed. When we take a closer look at their lives, there are lots of lessons to be learned in their beauty."

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A stock image of a bee, unrelated to the Caltech study. Getty