Complex Physical Environments


Maneuvering through clutter, collisions, & wing damage

Insects flying through complex, natural habitats must frequently interact with physical features of their environment - landing on and taking off from a variety of surfaces, and avoiding collisions with obstacles in their path.  Insects such as bees that collect nectar and pollen must approach and land on flowers, which are small, flexible, and nearly always moving, posing an extreme challenge in terms of flight control and performance.  They then manipulate flowers to obtain the resources they need (often involving specialized behaviors, such as buzz pollination), and take off from flowers while loaded with nectar or pollen that can increase their total weight by 100% or more.

In addition to interacting deliberately with plants while collecting nectar and pollen, insects also interact with plants unintentionally, colliding with leaves, stems and other structures as they fly through and around floral patches.  Bees must maneuver to avoid these collisions, and their ability to pass through cluttered environments unscathed likely depends on a number of factors, ranging from morphology and body size to sensory physiology and neuromuscular control.  We have begun examining how features such as body size, peak acceleration, and wing condition affect bees’ ability to successfully navigate through static and dynamic obstacle courses. 

Despite the fact that insects attempt to avoid collisions by maneuvering, collisions do occur with environmental obstacles at a surprising frequency.  One of the most significant results of these collisions is the accumulation of irreversible wing damage with age.  We have documented the effects of wing damage on flight performance in both dragonflies and bees, and have performed experiments in which we subject wings to repeated, controlled collisions to determine how wing morphology (particularly passive flexibility) helps mitigate collisional damage.

Related Publications:

Mountcastle, A.M. and Combes, S.A. (2014).  Biomechanical strategies for

    mitigating collision damage in insect wings: structural design versus

    embedded elastic materials.  J. Exp. Biol. 217: 1108-1115.

Combes, S.A., Crall, J.D. and Mukherjee, S. (2010).  Dynamics of animal

    movement in an ecological context: dragonfly wing damage reduces flight

    performance and predation success.  Biol. Lett. 6(3): 426-429.

Press Coverage/Outreach:

Switzer, C. (2014). “Getting Buzzed at Arnold Arboretum.”  Arnoldia 71/4,        

    April 2014: 26-33.