How Do Bees Fly? Get The Facts

A bee flying over colorful flowers on a sunny day

Scientists scratched their heads for decades, trying to understand how bees fly. With such small wings compared to their body, it was impossible based on physics and the laws of flight. 

Thanks to advances in high-definition video, researchers captured their flapping action in a new light. In slow motion, all the answers were revealed, which we’ll explain in this article.

How can a bee fly?

A bee has a pair of wings on each side of its body that make quick, short motions front and back. Although it was originally thought that bees had rigid wings, they can twist and rotate them during flight. Beating their wings at 230 beats per second allows the bee to fly.

During the upstroke, a honey bee makes a 90° arc, then flips its wings upside down once it completes the downstroke. This fascinating technique allows it to achieve upward thrust on both the upward and downward strokes.  

The hamuli also assist a bee with flight. These are comb-like teeth that secure the wings to the thorax. Instead of using two wings separately, the hamuli gives the wings flexibility to create one large surface. This provides the bee with much better lift than using them separately.

The honey bee also has muscles that allow the thorax to squeeze up-and-down and left-and-right. It can rhythmically alternate pulsations in its thorax, causing the wings to beat super-fast.  

Did you know? The flight pattern of a honey bee is much shorter and quicker than other pollinating insects.

Why should bees not be able to fly?

Before modern cameras could capture a bee’s motion, many researchers were puzzled about how a bee could achieve lift-off. Flight requires a balance of weight, balance, and thrust. The challenge for bees is that their wings are small relative to their body size and weight. They also appeared to have an inefficient flying action, with short and fast beats. Other insects require less work by using a front and back technique with a slower wing beat. 

Scientists believe that the way a bee flies allows it to carry large loads of pollen and nectar. 

Why do bees hook and unhook their wings?

The ability to hook and unhook their wings is useful for the honey bee. It’s crowded inside a beehive, so unhooking them will create extra space. Laying them flat against their body is a little like closing an umbrella inside the house to reduce space. 

Unhooking wings also proves a benefit during the colder months of winter. When the mercury drops, honey bees unhook their wings inside the hive. This allows them to generate heat by vibrating their wing muscles, a useful survival technique for the colony. 

Commonly asked questions

Why do bees buzz?

Bees beat their wings at high speeds thanks to muscles in the spongy thorax. This movement creates a buzzing sound as they fly. Younger bees will beat their wings faster, creating a higher-pitched buzz than older, larger bees. A grounded bee can also make a buzzing sound by vibrating its wing muscles at high speeds.

How fast can a honey bee fly?

An average adult honey bee that isn’t carrying a load of pollen or nectar can fly at around 15mph (24kph). Once loaded up, a worker bee will slow to 12mph (19kph). 

How high can a bee fly?

Although uncommon, bees can fly at altitudes over 26,200 feet (8000m). Source. For most bees, there is no reason to fly up high as their food sources are on the ground. They are also susceptible to birds of prey, exposed in the air with no cover. Some drone congregating areas are located higher up in the air.

Can bees fly upside down?

Although bees are capable of flying vertically upward, they can’t fly upside down. If you ever see a bee inverted on a surface, they’ve grabbed hold of the ceiling with their front legs and somersaulted up. Source.  

Can bees regrow a damaged wing?

Bees cannot grow their wings back, unlike some other species like reptiles or octopuses. Honey bees live in colonies, so evolving regenerative powers haven’t been needed as they can simply be replaced by a new bee.

How many bees does it take to lift a person?

A bee can lift about half its body weight, so to lift a 110-pound child you’d need 100,000 bees. A 220-pound adult would require 200,000 bees lifting as a team.

Do bees flap or vibrate their wings?

Bees use a combination of vibrating and rotating to move their wings at extreme speeds.

Can a bee fly with one wing damaged?

Although bees have 4 wings, the pair on each side work together as a team, forming one larger blade. If a bee loses the use of a wing, it will usually keep trying to do its job by walking but will eventually die.

Can bees fly in bad weather?

The wings of a honey bee are delicate and won’t stand up to strong winds or rain. If conditions are bad, foraging worker bees https://beeprofessor.com/worker-bees/ will remain in the hive until the weather clears.

Summing up

Modern technology has allowed researchers to study bee flight in previously impossible ways. Their unique wing structure allows them to be unhooked along with a rotating flapping motion is what gets the bee off the ground.

If you’d like to learn more about bees then you should check out our beginner’s guide to bee anatomy. You’ll discover loads more interesting stuff about how the honey bee operates.

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