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How Do Bees Fly (According to Science)?

Ever wonder why bees buzz? 

Well, it has to do with the physics and science behind how bees fly. 

Bees are very capable flyers. They can fly up to 15 miles per hour, use the sun as a compass, and usually fly in extraordinary patterns.

In this article, we’ll uncover the wonders of how bees fly, as well as some interesting facts and myths, that you might not know.

How Do Bees Fly?

Bees are flying insects that use wings to fly. To fly, bees use their two sets of wings to beat in rhythmic motions causing the bee to lift off the ground. This lift makes it possible for bees to fly. 

Their wings are not stiff but twist and rotate when bees fly.

The bee’s average flying speed is about 15-30 miles per hour. However, they can fly even faster than that. 

Bees fly by flapping their two sets of wings at speeds up to 230 beats per second. This flapping motion causes airflow and helps the bee generate enough lift force to fly.

bees flying in large numbers

The Science of Bee Flight

Bee flight is a fascinating and complicated engineering feat. Several studies have been conducted to unveil how bees move their wings, how their muscles work, and how they fly.

Bees can fly in many different weather conditions, including light rain, wind speeds up to 20 mph, and low temperatures – though they prefer to stay inside under these circumstances. 

The flight of bees is aerodynamically efficient, requiring a minimal amount of energy to stay in the air.

At the same time, bees’ flight pattern lets them be very maneuverable and agile in the air.

Most creatures that use “flapping” to generate thrust only move their wings up and down, but bees fly by moving their wings back and forth as well, rotating them 90 degrees.

bees flying together around the flower

Bees Beat Their Wings Back & Forth, Not Just up & Down

Bees beat their wings back and forth, not just up and down, as it tends to look. This unusual movement allows the distance between apogee (top of downstroke) and perigee (bottom of upstroke) to be much longer than how standard wings move. 

This way of moving their wings in a 90-degree pattern is how they create enough force and lift to fly.

Different Than Other Flying Animals

Bees are not like other flying animals. Compared to birds, their method of flying is very different. From the way, their bodies are built to the way they use their wings.

Their bodies are tiny and very lightweight, making it easier for them to fly around. Similarly, their wings are very small, making it possible to beat them very fast.

Bees don’t have much of an internal skeleton, making them lighter relative to size, which again makes it easier to fly.

bee flying alone in a flower

Myth: Bees Shouldn’t Be Able to Fly

One common myth about bees is, that they shouldn’t be able to fly because they weigh too much and their wings are too small and weak to carry the bee. This is false. 

This myth has been proven false by several scientists who have studied how bee flight works in detail. 

The way they beat their wings back and forth is actually what makes their flight possible.

How Do Bumblebees Fly?

Bumblebees fly like honey bees. It’s the same principles that apply: it’s all about the way they move their wings, and the speed they beat their wings.

Bumblebees also beat their wings about 200 times a second, allowing them to create enough lift to get them off the ground and fly.

This is very different from birds or bats, who beat their wings slowly.

Even though bumblebees look very heavy and big, compared to the size of their wings, they can create enough lift with the special way their wings move. Not restricted to moving their wings up and down, but also back and forth, helps them increase lift.

Bumblebees can even fly faster than honeybees. [1]

bumblebee flying

Bee Wing Anatomy

Bee wings are made of a strong material called chitin, a lot like the material our fingernails are made out of (keratin).

Bees have two sets of wings, the large forewings, and the hindwings which are shorter. The hindwings are often tucked into the body when they’re not used.

For each set of wings, the large wing is connected to the small wing. They’re connected with hamuli, which are small hooks.

Other than this, the bee wings also contain nerves, hemolymph (insect blood), and air tubes, all adding strength and stability to the wings. The nerves in the wings enable bees to feel with their wings.

Bee wings are very thin, almost completely transparent.

The wing itself has split into three layers: a transparent membrane on top and bottom that supports the middle layer, which contains nerves, breathing tubes, and veins. This all adds elasticity and strength to the wings.

bee anatomy

The middle layer can be used to distinguish subspecies.

Even though bee wings are very durable, they’re only capable of a set number of miles. Experts estimate bees to be able to fly in the upper range of 500 miles in total.

When bees get old, as they’ve flown close to these 500 miles, their wings will be tattered and worn down around the edges.

How Many Wings Do Bees Have?

Bees have four wings, two sets. These are all attached to the thorax (the middle part of the body). The front wings are much larger than the ones behind.

Flight Muscles

Bees have two sets of flight muscles: the DV (dorsoventral) and DL (dorsal longitudinal) muscles. Before bees fly, they will warm up their wings. They shiver, raising their body temperature.

During warm-up, the dorsal longitudinal muscles are used more than the dorsoventral, which reverses during the actual flight. [2]

Flight is started by synchronized contractions of many muscle elements in DV muscles.

These muscles are indirect flight muscles, as they’re not directly attached to the wings.

bee flying alone in a flower

Bee flight muscles function like any other muscle in our body. Each muscle is made of long tubes formed by smaller strands of muscle tissue. Each strand is called a myofibril. 

The bee muscles are striated, which means they contain alternating light and dark bands.

Why Do Bees Buzz?

The noise that bees make when they fly is called buzzing. This is created from the rapid beating of the wings.

This buzzing noise is very easy to hear, even for humans. Other bees can hear it as well, which tells them someone is approaching.

Even flowers use this buzzing sound to their advantage, increasing the production of nectar to lure in the bee nearby.

carpenter bee

Facts About Bee Flight

Here are some facts about bee flight:

  • Bees have a wingspan of roughly 0.2-0.6 inches (5-15 mm).
  • Their wings beat over 200 times per second. 
  • A bee’s body only weighs about 150-400 mg. For such a small creature, bee flight is surprisingly efficient. They are capable of traveling an average distance of up to 11km in one day.
  • Masters of aerodynamics, bees can fly through the tiniest of openings.
  • Every honey bee has two sets of flight muscles, the vertical and the longitudinals. Contracting the longitudinals, the verticals get longer, and the wings go down. Release the longitudinals, the verticals shorten and wings go up

Can Queen Bees Fly?

Yes, queen bees can fly, but they’re not very good at it all of the time. When queens are laying eggs, their body weight may rise, causing flying problems. The workers will make sure, that the queen loses weight before she has to fly.

Related: Can queen bees fly?

How Fast Can a Honey Bee Fly?

A honey bee flies at around 15 mph or 24 km/h but can reach speeds up to 20 mph or 32 km/h.

The larger the bee, the slower it flies. 

In tougher weather conditions, a honey bee will fly slower to conserve energy. When heavy winds or rain threaten, a honey bee will not leave the hive until it is absolutely necessary.

a bee flight

How High Can Bees Fly?

Bees fly as high as 10,000 feet (3,144 meters) and even higher. A species of alpine bumblebees have been recorded flying at altitudes higher than Mount Everest at 30,000 feet (9,125 meters). [3]

These bees are used to lower oxygen levels, as well as colder temperatures, which is why they can achieve something like this.

How Far Can Bees Fly?

Bees can fly 5-6 miles away from their hive, but will usually keep within 1-2 miles of their nest when foraging. Queen bees can also fly about 5-6 miles away from the hive when they’re looking for a mate.

Related: How far can bees fly?

How Many Times Do Bees Beat Their Wings per Second?

Bees beat their wings about 230 times per second, ranging from 200-250 bps (beats per second). For comparison, wasps beat their wings between 120-240 times per second, and a fruit fly will only beat its wings 80 times per second.

bee flying at night

Conclusion

Bees fly by beating their wings more than 200 times per second. Combined with the way they move their wings in a 90-degree pattern (back and forth, as well as up and down), they can create enough lift to fly.

The buzzing you can hear from bees comes from their fast wing-beating.

It’s a myth that bees are too heavy to fly, but the myth originates from a belief that bees moved their wings like birds, solely up and down.

Bees have two sets of wings, 4 in total: one front set and one hind set.

About Teodoro Pittman

Teodoro is a nature and animal lover. He specifically focuses on insects, such as ants, bees, and the like. In his free time, he takes care of his own ant farm, where he analyzes their behavior. Teodoro has spent the last 7 years studying the intricate behavior of these small creatures.