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. All the answers were revealed in slow motion, which we’ll explain in this article.
How does a bee fly?
Bees combine a unique wing system with highly efficient flight muscles to fly. Their flexible wings rotate and twist, allowing rapid front and back sweeping motions.
The honey bee uses direct muscles that attach to the wings as well as indirect thorax muscles. They work together to create a vortex under the wings that lifts them up as well as assisting with direction and speed.
Birds and some insects like mayflies and dragonflies have bigger wings that provide an efficient lift. While bees require more energy output to fly through the air, their flight mechanism provides greater flexibility when collecting pollen and nectar.
Watch the explainer video
How do bee wings assist with flight?
Bees have a pair of wings on each side of its body, with the outer one being the largest. Each wing has nerves and breathing tubes that are protected by two layers of transparent membrane.
The wings make quick, short motions front and back. Although it was initially 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.
The hamuli are comb-like teeth that secure the wings to the thorax. Instead of using two wings separately, hamuli allow the wings to create one large surface. This anatomical enhancement gives the bee much better lift than using them separately.
- Wing hairs assist with aerodynamics and vary in density by bee species.
- Veins offer mechanical wing support and help the insect deal with wind resistance.
Did you know? The flight pattern of a honey bee is much shorter and quicker than other pollinating insects.
How do flight muscles help a bee fly?
The honey bee also has sets of 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. There are two separate flight muscle systems within the bee’s anatomy.
- Direct muscles attach the wings to the bees thorax, allowing for a wide range of movement.
- Indirect muscles are located on the inside of the bee’s thorax and assist with wing movement. Vertical muscles, or elevator muscles, contract to force the wings up. Longitudinal muscles, or depressors, contract to force the wings down.
Why does bee flight defy the laws of physics?
Before modern cameras captured a bee’s motion, researchers were puzzled with how bees achieved 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. Birds and some insects require less work using a front and back technique with a slower wing cadence.
Scientists believe that how a bee flies allows it to carry large amounts of pollen and nectar.
Why do bees hook and unhook their wings?
Unhooked wings help the honey bee in a crowded beehive as it creates extra space. Laying them flat against their body is like closing an umbrella inside the house to reduce space.
Bees also unhook their wings to stay warm in the colder months of winter. They generate heat by vibrating their wing muscles, a helpful 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 beat their wings faster, creating a higher-pitched buzz than older, larger bees. Grounded bees can also buzz by vibrating their wing muscles at high speeds.
How fast can a honey bee fly?
An average-sized adult honey bee can fly unencumbered 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. Most bees have no reason to fly up high as their food sources are on the ground. They are also susceptible to birds of prey, exposed 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, it has grabbed hold of the ceiling with its front legs and somersaulted up. Source.
Can bees regrow a damaged wing?
Bees cannot grow their wings back, unlike other species like reptiles or octopuses. Honey bees live in colonies, so evolving regenerative powers haven’t been needed as a new bee can replace them.
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 working as a team.
Do bees flap or vibrate their wings?
Bees combine vibrating and rotating techniques to move their wings at extreme speeds.
Can a bee fly with one wing damaged?
Although bees have four 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 continues 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 will remain in the hive until the weather clears. Some breeds of bee like the Buckfast have some resilience to bad weather.
Modern technology has allowed researchers to study bee flight with incredible clarity. A unique wing structure that unhooks along with a rotating flapping motion allows the honey bee to fly.
If you’d like to learn more about bees, check out our beginner’s guide to bee anatomy. You’ll gain more insight into the parts of a honey bee.