Flight efficiency is a key to diverse wing morphologies in small insects

Thomas Engels, Dmitry Kolomenskiy, Fritz Olaf Lehmann

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Citations (Scopus)


Insect wings are hybrid structures that are typically composed of veins and solid membranes. In some of the smallest flying insects, however, the wing membrane is replaced by hair-like bristles attached to a solid root. Bristles and membranous wing surfaces coexist in small but not in large insect species. There is no satisfying explanation for this finding as aerodynamic force production is always smaller in bristled than solid wings. This computational study suggests that the diversity of wing structure in small insects results from aerodynamic efficiency rather than from the requirements to produce elevated forces for flight. The tested wings vary from fully membranous to sparsely bristled and were flapped around a wing root with lift- and drag-based wing kinematic patterns and at different Reynolds numbers (Re). The results show that the decrease in aerodynamic efficiency with decreasing surface solidity is significantly smaller at Re = 4 than Re = 57. A replacement of wing membrane by bristles thus causes less change in energetic costs for flight in small compared to large insects. As a consequence, small insects may fly with bristled and solid wing surfaces at similar efficacy, while larger insects must use membranous wings for an efficient production of flight forces. The above findings are significant for the biological fitness and dispersal of insects that fly at elevated energy expenditures.

Original languageEnglish
Article number20210518
JournalJournal of the Royal Society Interface
Issue number183
Publication statusPublished - 1 Oct 2021


  • bristled wings
  • insect flight
  • numerical simulation
  • Rankine-Froude efficiency
  • unsteady aerodynamics


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