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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Volkswagen is introducing a new car a design that will get 170 miles per gallon. That's a level of fuel efficiency never seen before in any car. But as NPR's Robert Krulwich says - VW, prepare to be humbled.

ROBERT KRULWICH: No question - 170 miles per gallon, that's a huge engineering achievement. But as the blues singer Muddy Waters could tell those oh-so-proud German engineers...

(Soundbite of song, "Honey Bee")

Mr. MUDDY WATERS (Blues Singer): (Singing) Sail on, my little honey bee, sail on.

KRULWICH: You can get even better mileage from, of all things, a bee.

(Soundbite of song, "Honey Bee")

Mr. WATERS: (Singing) Sail on...

KRULWICH: We're talking here about an ordinary honey bee.

(Soundbite of song, "Honey Bee")

Mr. WATERS: (Singing) Sail on, my little honey bee, sail on.

KRULWICH: 'Cause when it comes to miles per gallon, bees turn out to be better than the latest Volkswagen or better than any car ever made. I learned that from Steve Buchmann. He studies bees at the University of Arizona.

Dr. STEVE BUCHMANN (University of Arizona): If you could introduce me as the international coordinator for the Pollinator Partnership.

KRULWICH: I can do that. But I want to make sure since you like bees so much that you don't hate cars. 'Cause that would be unfair.

Dr. BUCHMANN: No, no. I like cars.

KRULWICH: Okay. Good. So, it's your scientific contention then that a bee can take a unit of fuel and do more with it than a car.

Dr. BUCHMANN: Yeah, exactly. It's the ultimate hybrid mini-vehicle.

KRULWICH: Partly because muscles, all animal muscles, are superb converters of energy. And you know cars, even the best cars, how they get warm when the engine's on? Well, when you feel that warmth on the hood...

Dr. BUCHMANN: I mean, that is losing a huge, huge amount of heat. But in the case of the bee, it's just not losing nearly as much. So far more of the fuel is getting into the propulsion to beat those wings and drive the bee through the air.

KRULWICH: Oh, so they're pretty efficient.

Dr. BUCHMANN: Pretty, pretty, pretty efficient.

(Soundbite of song, "Honey Bee")

Mr. WATERS: (Singing) Sail on...

KRULWICH: Okay. So to calculate what we're going to call bee miles per gallon, what I gather you do is you take a bee and you give it all the honey it could possibly drink and then you attach it to some kind of a pole.

Dr. BUCHMANN: Yeah. You can actually tether a bee onto a piece of wood or a little wire and then...

KRULWICH: You don't think it's hurting the bee particularly?

Dr. BUCHMANN: No.

KRULWICH: And how do you get it fly?

Dr. BUCHMANN: Sometimes you need to blow on them a little bit, so give them a little experience of wind in their hair, you know?

(Soundbite of song, "Honey Bee")

Mr. WATERS: (Singing) Sail on, my little honey bee, sail on.

KRULWICH: So this tethered bee is going round and round and round a device which measures the distance as the bee flies. So you watch...

Dr. BUCHMANN: And let them fly till they run out of gas, till they can't fly any more.

KRULWICH: But now you know how far a bee can go on a tummy's worth of fuel. So, you can multiply and figure out how far it goes on a gallon. And it turns out bees are good.

Dr. BUCHMANN: Bees are amazing creatures.

KRULWICH: So, if you were to give a bee a whole gallon of honey, how many miles could that bee fly?

Dr. BUCHMANN: Four million, seven hundred and four thousand, two hundred and eighty miles per gallon.

(Soundbite of music)

KRULWICH: Did you just say 4,704,280 miles per gallon?

Dr. BUCHMANN: Yes, I did. Try that in the home automobile.

(Soundbite of song, "Honey Bee")

Mr. WATERS: (Singing) I said a lot of buzzing.

KRULWICH: Oh, come on. Aren't you just playing with the numbers here? Isn't it that the bee is very little or is it really that the bee is that good?

Dr. BUCHMANN: We are playing with the numbers a little bit in terms of scaling factors. But honey bees are far more efficient than any kind of internal combustion engine that, you know, humankind has ever devised. So if you want to think in terms of miles per gallon, no denying it - almost five million miles per gallon.

KRULWICH: Pretty darn impressive. And we just thought the folks at Volkswagen should know. Robert Krulwich, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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