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To fly, bees use a familiar mechanism

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This is a movie of the wing-beat of a bumblebee, containing a whole wing-beat cycle. The yellow dot indicates the wing position determined by software.
[Video courtesy of Science/AAAS]

Researchers studying bumblebees—and the specialized muscles that the insects use for flight—have made a surprising discovery: Bees have simply improved upon an ancient muscle-contraction mechanism that was first used by vertebrates, rather than developing a new one altogether.

Bumblebees have to beat their wings extremely fast in order to fly. (In fact, a single wing beat happens in just 8 milliseconds.) And, consequently, researchers have suspected that the insects developed a special kind of muscle contraction for the job.

However, this new study by Hiroyuki Iwamoto and Naoto Yagi, which appears in the 23 August issue of the journal Science, suggests that bees' super-fast muscle contractions result from the dynamics of two proteins—actin and myosin—similar to the contractions of vertebrate skeletal muscle.

The researchers used X-rays and high-speed cameras, which were capable of recording 5,000 frames per second, to get a good look—inside and out—at the muscles that bumblebees use in flight. In light of their observations, they suggest that bees rely upon stretch-activated myosin deformation, which must have evolved over the ages to accommodate their short, ultra-fast wing beats.