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How do Bees Fly? (A Simple Guide)

Impossible they said – a honey bee should not be able to fly. The wings are too small for their plump little bodies. But, fly they do and they do a good job of traveling near and far to gather food. Until recently, the honey bee flight was a puzzle to scientists. Now, we think we do understand how bees fly.

A Flying Honey Bee – Impossible They Said

Worker honey bee flying to nectar rich flower image.

Researchers and scientists make great discoveries and contributions to mankind. And having an inquisitive mind, they yearn to understand “why”. The want to know why things work the way they do.

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The honey bee represented a puzzle for scientists. The mathematical data of bee flight that could be measured and observed did not add up. Honey bees should not be able to fly. But, bees did fly and continue to do so, regardless of what science could not understand.

Flying bee over a field of wildflowers image.

Flight Rules that Honey Bees Seem to Break

In a most basic study of physics, there are several things involved that makes it possible for anything to fly. This is true regardless of whether we are talking about an insect of a plane. Flight is possible because of the interaction of the forces of life, drag, weight and thrust.

For many years researchers could not understand how honey bees could fly with their small, rigid wings. The wings seemed too small in comparison to a honey bee’s fat little body.

No matter how fast the four wings beat, it should not create enough lift to get the bee off the ground – according to the known laws of aviation.

Only in recent years, was the answer revealed. High resolution video was taken of a flying bee. When played in slow motion the answer to the problem was became clear.

Flapping wings of a honey bee in flight image.

Flexible Wings

Contrary to earlier belief, bee wings are not rigid. And, they do not move solely in an up and down wing stroke. This may appear to be a small difference but it is very important in the understanding of flight.

The wings of honey bees are flexible and able to move in a rotating pattern. Instead of beating straight up and down, the wings of a honey bee also make sweeping motions front to back. The angle of the wing creates vortices that create lift.

A flying honey bee differs from many other flight patterns due to the short fast stroke of the wings vs a longer slower stroke of other pollinators.

Flight Speed of Other Insects

There is much diversity in the insect world. For instance, bumble bees and honey bees are alike in some characteristics. But, their size and life style is different. Their bodies must perform different tasks. This leads to some variation between average flight speed of various bees and wasps.

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  • honeybees: 12-20 mph
  • yellow jackets: 7-30 mph
  • bumble bees: 7-33 mph
  • hornets: 14-25 mph

Why Do Honey Bees Fly Differently?

Honey bees are not insect predators. They focus on gathering things that the colony needs to survive. Perhaps this different method of flying is due to the need of the honey bee to carry large loads.

A worker bee is not simply moving from one location to another. Foraging bees collect all the resources needed by the colony. This includes nectar, pollen, propolis and water. This effort requires healthy bees with strong flight muscles.

Forager honey bees flies to collect food image.

When a foraging bee flies from the hive, she will be light weight and fast. As she gathers pollen or nectar from flowers, her flight weight increases. Honey bees can travel miles from their hive if necessary.

In addition to being strong, bee flight has to be adaptable. At times it is necessary for the honey bee to fly slower as she moves from flower to flower. Honey production requires many trips for nectar collection.

Close view of honey bee wings with veined structure and folded position image.

Honey Bee Wings

A quick study of honey bee anatomy reveals that they have 4 wings – a larger pair of forewings and a pair of smaller wings in the back.

Small hooks called “hamuli” make it possible for the bee to hook the wings on each side together. When the two wings are joined, they flap together giving the bee more lift capacity.

Muscles in the thorax of the bee cause the wings to be able to move very fast. Honey bees can flap their wings up to 230 times per second.

However, as wonderful as these insects are – bees do not fly in hard rain or high winds. Hard rain could break their wings and in windy weather the effort often outweighs the rewards.

Why Bees Can Hook and Unhook Wings?

Well, in part, unhooking allows the wings to lay flat against the body while inside the hive.

Much like you going inside the house with your umbrella opened up to full size. It just would not work inside a hive of thousands.

Also, being able to unhook the wing pairs allows the honey bee to vibrate wing muscles and generate heat during the winter. This helps the colony survive.

Worker honey bee flying to collect nectar from clover.

Modern technology made it possible to study a flying bee in a way never seen before. This helps promote more in-depth study of honey bees. Now we know things about bee wings were previously undiscovered.

In fact, each part of this marvelous insect has a special function that helps them survive. Antennas that function as a nose, bee legs and knees that help with daily tasks, a stinger for defense.

The special features of bees wings (structure) and the method in which they rotate make honey bee flight possible. Think of this the next time you see a flying bee.

FAQs about Flying Bees

Why does a flying bee buzz?

The muscles in the spongy thorax of bees allow wings to move very fast. The fast beating wings create air vibrations that we hear as a buzz.

Bees can make a buzzing sound when not in flight too. Bumble Bees often do this to shake pollen from a flower.

How fast does a honey bee fly?

Healthy worker honey bees can fly up to 15-20 mph (21-29km/h). The average adult human can run about 15 mph. Important tip: don’t get into a foot race with a honey bee.

Of course, a foraging worker loaded down with nectar, pollen or water would fly slower – averaging about 12 mph or less.

How high can bees fly?

Rather than how high can bee fly, it becomes an issue of not wasting energy. Bees do everything for a reason. They fly to where the food is when it is in their power to do so.

Otherwise, because bees are cold blooded insects, they need a certain thermal temperature to survive. It would stand to reason that once they reached a certain height, their wings would not be able to beat fast enough to sustain lift.

How much weight can a bee carry?

A honey bee can carry an average of 15 gm of pollen and up to 20 gm of nectar. Bumble bees are the true heavy lifters. They are able to carry up to and over 60% of their body weight.

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