It is a one-sided aerial battle that the Europeans are doomed to lose. Aerodynamic analysis of 25 honey-bee subspecies has revealed that those native to Europe are the worst fliers in the apian world, writes Steve Farrar.
The detailed study by Randall Hepburn at Rhodes University, South Africa, treats the insects essentially as miniature aircraft to calculate their prowess in the air.
Papers published in the Journal of Comparative Physiology and in conference proceedings now in press reveal enormous differences in ability, with dwarf Asian bees at the top of the league, African bees not far behind and Europeans at the bottom.
It is possible that this may in part help explain why African bees are pushing out European bees introduced by man into North America.
"African bees are like Mig fighters compared to European bees. The Europeans are the aerodynamically worst honey-bees in the world," Professor Hepburn concluded.
The analysis, devised with R. E. Brown, an aeronautical engineer at the University of Glasgow, from the general principles of flight theory, allows the flying ability of different insects to be compared.
The weight of the bee and its wing surface area are easily measured. In addition, the weight of its engine - the muscular flight machinery that makes up the contents of its thorax - is also required.
Professor Hepburn then calculated the amount of power each sub-species of honey-bee had available above that required to maintain steady flight.
The Europeans had 30 per cent less excess power than the Africans and 42 per cent less than the Asian dwarf bees. They were much heavier yet had proportionately smaller "engines" and a poorer wing surface-to-mass ratio.
The research sits well alongside previous work that found that European bees had a relatively inefficient form of mitochondrial chemical to convert food into energy within their flight muscles.
Professor Hepburn said the mismatch may be down to the different environments the bees live in.
"Tropical bees abscond at the drop of a hat as well as migrate seasonally all the time," said Professor Hepburn.
"European bees stay put. They store honey and stay home and keep warm and alive while tropical bees just move on to greener pastures."