All of the bees were capable of flying in conditions equivalent to 13,000 feet (4,000 m), and some even made it past 30,000 feet (9,000 m) - the height of the peak of Mount Everest - the team reported Tuesday (Feb. 4) in the journal Biology Letters.
The team used a video camera to study how wing beat patterns changed to compensate for the thinner air and lower oxygen concentrations of high elevations, hypothesizing that the bees would either need to beat their wings faster or swoop them wider to keep their bodies afloat. The researchers found that, instead of beating their wings faster, the bees increased the angle at which they extended their wings with each beat, reaching closer to their heads and abdomens each time. This action increased the amount of air that they swooped, helping to boost their bodies up.
The findings suggest that bumblebees are not limited by flying capacity when searching for places to settle their colonies, but rather by something else, such as the availability of the flower nectar they feed on, study lead author Michael Dillon, who now works at the University of Wyoming, told Live Science. This could bode well for alpine bumblebees in the future, Dillon said, as climate change may force animals up to higher elevations than they once inhabited due to warming conditions at lower elevations.