The maximum height an insect can fly depends on numerous factors, such as the abilities of its species and the weather conditions of the day. For example, there are records of invertebrates flying at altitudes greater than 4 km, such as bumblebees of the genus Bombus. In quite atypical situations, they reached a height of 5.6 km. However, this is not usually the rule for most species.
Generally speaking, “we can capture insects at 1.5 km or 1.8 km altitude”, explains Phil Pellitteri, a researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, in the United States. It is worth remembering that, for invertebrates, “the wind has a great impact on the movement of insects, and it is difficult to know whether they are flying or drifting,” he adds.
It may seem curious, but some insects – even with wings – take advantage of storms to travel great distances and reach heights, like aphids. “Usually [they] arrive after a big storm has passed,” says Pellitteri.
Can insects fly higher than Mount Everest?
Published in the scientific journal Biology Letters , an article by researchers at the University of California sought ways to calculate what maximum attitude a drone of the Bombus impetuosus species could reach.
In the 2014 study, the scientists claim to have found that “Individuals of the species have substantial aerodynamic reserves and can sustain hovering, under hypobaric [low pressure], at altitudes greater than 9 km, i.e. higher than Mount Everest. “.
To reach this conclusion, the study authors released ambient drones that simulated the pressure found in environments over 8 km in altitude. In fact, two specimens overcame this pressure and flew in air pressures corresponding to altitudes higher than the peak of Mount Everest — considered the highest point on Earth .
While the extraordinary feat of bumblebees is possible in the laboratory, it could hardly be replicated in a natural environment. Before reaching this height, the insects would end up frozen and plummet back to the ground.
What limits the flight height of insects?
To understand, there are three main factors that limit the altitude that insects can fly:
Oxygen availability — yes, insects breathe, even if they don’t have lungs.
The higher we are above sea level, the more the density and pressure of the atmosphere decrease. Under these conditions, the air becomes thinner, which reduces the impact of the insect’s wing movement. It’s as if the wings have less to push down. In parallel, the invertebrate suffers from the difficulty of getting air to breathe. Lastly, there is the issue of the temperature that can freeze it . For all this, insects do not reach Mount Everest and remain at much lower altitudes.
Source: Biology Letters and University of Wisconsin-Madison