APRIL
1989

 

 

 

By
Tom Turpin
 
Professor of
Entomology
Purdue University

 

 

 

 

 

04-13-89

Have Wings, Will Fly

Birds do it. But so do the bees. In fact, most insects are real experts at it. They've been cruising the airways of planet Earth for 350 million years or so.

Insects have so mastered the art of flight that it is one of the reasons for their success. Indeed, in honor of their winged proficiency, we call some of them "flies."

As landlubbers, we humans stand in awe of the aerial gymnastics performed by insects. Scientists have studied insect flight and even counted the number of beats of an insect wing. A swallowtail butterfly, for instance, will flap its wings about nine times a second. A honeybee has a wingbeat frequency of 250 beats per second; the old housefly, about 190; and the Culex mosquito, a little over 300. It is the frequency of the wingbeat that produces the mosquito's all-too-familiar humming sound.

House flies cruise along at nearly 5 miles per hour. Some sphinx moths are the fastest insect fliers, reaching a top speed of over 33 miles per hour. The honeybee can fly about 8 miles per hour, and the bumblebee can buzz along at 11 miles per hour, a respectable number considering that a scientist once calculated that a bumblebee couldn't fly at all.  

It seems that the surface area of the bumblebee wing was too small to carry that fuzzy, yellow- and black-striped body aloft. Of course, folks who have been dive-bombed by a bee intent on causing bodily harm have experienced the error of that calculation firsthand!

Insects use the power of flight for many purposes, including finding mates, avoiding enemies and moving to a new territory. Some insects travel many miles on the wing. The champion traveler in this regard is the Monarch butterfly. This insect travels each year from its breeding grounds in Canada to overwintering sites in the mountains of Mexico--a trip of over 2,000 miles.

Of the teeming billions of insects, not all use flight as a preferred form of locomotion. Some prefer to hoof it, as this old poem tells:

The June bug hath a gaudy wing,
The lighting bug a flame,
The bedbug hath no wing at all,
But he gets there just the same!

 

Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Carol McGrew