Alpine bumblebees towering above Mount Everest

Recent studies have concluded that alpine bumblebees are able to fly at conditions harsher than those of Mount Everest.


Animals have once again proven themselves to be far more capable than we think they are. With the cheetah being the fastest animal on earth, and the mimic octopus having the ability to impersonate other creatures, we shouldn’t be surprised that recent research has unveiled that alpine bumblebees are capable of flying even higher than the daunting Mt Everest, which towers at 8848m above sea level.
For most insects and birds, this is an impossible feat due to the inadequate oxygen level and thin air that high altitude environment possesses. In theory, animals flap their wings against the air to generate lift, which is difficult to achieve in a high altitude due to the thinness of the air. However, alpine bumblebees have gone against the odds to survive in this harsh environment. While these small creatures would not be able to adapt to the bitter Himalayan temperatures, studies have shown that bumblebees were capable of flying at exceptionally difficult conditions.

Michael Dillon, a scientist from the University of Wyoming who recently conducted an experiment together with a team of researchers, had pondered if these challenges would restrict the flying abilities of bumblebees. The team had travelled to a mountain range in Sichuan Province of Western China and captured bumblebees at approximately 3230m above sea level. They then placed the bees in transparent, airtight boxes and altered the oxygen level and air density using a hand pump to simulate different conditions while maintaining the temperature throughout the experiment. Remarkably, they discovered that the bumblebees collected could fly in conditions that were similar to almost 7406m above sea level, and two of them could even fly higher than 9000m, exceeding the peak of Mt Everest.

Researchers also discovered that instead of beating their wings more aggressively and quickly, the bees swung their wings through a wider arc to lift themselves higher by generating more lift. For the two bumblebees which managed to soar the highest, they had a larger muscle mass than the others, which enabled them to swing their wings wider.

Despite their extraordinary flight abilities, there is no reason for bumblebees to travel to the peak of Mount Everest, since there is no flower nectar at such a high altitude. However, this could be advantageous to alpine bumblebees in time to come, Dillon said, as animals might be forced to adapt to higher altitudes due to warmer conditions at lower elevations.

Furthermore, this flight behaviour could also save them from their predators. These findings could lay the foundations of aeronautical projects in the future, to enhance rescue activity at higher altitudes, like performing rescues on Mount Everest.

Currently, the team is following up their research to determine whether bumblebees which live in lower elevations are able to fly at simulated high elevations, or if this behaviour is exclusive to alpine bumblebees. Dillon also plans to study the respiratory and circulatory systems of bumblebees at high altitudes.

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