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How Do Honey Bees Fly and Other Facts About Honey Bee Flight

Updated on December 5, 2017
CatherineGiordano profile image

Honey bees are greatly admired by Ms. Giordano. They are a favorite topic for her writing and public speakng.

Bes should be too heavy too fly, but they manage it, and quite elegantly too.
Bes should be too heavy too fly, but they manage it, and quite elegantly too. | Source

How do honey bees fly?

This has long been a perplexing problem. It was long thought that the bee’s wings were too small for the size and weight of their bodies. Many claimed that according to the laws of aerodynamics, bee flight was impossible. Obviously, it is not impossible because the bees do it. They just don’t do it the same way that human-designed aircraft or other animals do it.

The secret of honeybee flight was discovered by researchers at Cal Tech, Michael H. Dickinson, professor of Bioengineering, and his postdoctoral student, Douglas L. Altshuler, and their colleagues. Their research paper reporting their findings was published in the November 28, 2005 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The researchers used high-speed digital photography to take freeze-frame images of flying bees. Additionally, they conducted experiments by observing bee flight in a small chamber filled with a mixture of oxygen and helium creating “air” that is less dense than regular air. This required the bees to work harder to stay aloft, and the researchers could observe how their wings compensated for this.

So how do honey bees fly? Their flight method is quite different from that of other insects. They use short choppy wing strokes, a rapid rotation of the wing as it turns over and reverses direction, and a very fast wing-beat frequency.

Their fast flapping speed is surprising because, as a general rule, smaller animals beat their wings faster than larger animals. (Aerodynamic performance decreases with size, and so smaller animals have to flap their wings faster to compensate.) Since bees are relatively large insects, they would be expected to beat their wings rather slowly compared to other insects. They don’t; bees beat their wings faster.

(For comparison, a fruit fly flaps its wings 200 times each second, about the same rate as a honey bee, but the bee is 80 times larger. A ruby-throated humming bird flaps its wings 55 beats per second--it’s the bird with the fastest rate of wing flaps, but it’s rate is very slow compared to bees.)

Other flying insects sweep their wings in a wide arc, covering nearly half a circle. Honey bees sweep their wings in a much shorter arc, only about 90 degrees. When bees need more power -- for example, when they are laden down with a load of nectar or pollen or they want to fly faster--they increase the arc of their wing strokes, but keep flapping at the same rate. This is odd because it would be much more aerodynamically efficient if they simply beat their wings faster.

A bee has two larger fore wings and two much smaller hind wings. They both help with flight. Lift off happens when the bee gives a propeller-like twist is to each wing while flapping the wings up and down.

The honey bee clearly has an odd and inefficient way of flying.

A Bee Flying Towards a Flower

Honey bees flap their wings about 230 times a second when in flight.
Honey bees flap their wings about 230 times a second when in flight. | Source

How fast does a honey bee’s wings flap?

The honey bee's wings stroke incredibly fast, about 200 beats per second when they hover and about 230 beats per second when they fly. It is the motion of the wings that makes their distinctive buzz.

Do the math. Honey bees flap their wings about 12,000 to 14,000 times a minute. That’s a lot of flapping.

How many flight muscles do honey bees have?

Honey bees use their wings differently from other flying insects because their flight muscles are very different.

Bees have two sets of flight muscles: the longitudinal muscles that go cross the thorax and the vertical muscles, located between the wings, which go down the thorax.

  • When the longitudinal muscles are contracted, the vertical ones lengthen making the wings go down.
  • When the longitudinal muscles are released, the vertical ones shorten making the wings go up.

The flight muscles can contract several times with one single nerve impulse, allowing the muscles to contract at a faster rate.

See more about this at BeeInformed: Insect Flight

A Bee Laden with Pollen

A bee can carry 16 mg of pollen in the pollen baskets on its legs.
A bee can carry 16 mg of pollen in the pollen baskets on its legs. | Source

How much weight can a honey bee carry?

hey can carry quite a lot of weight when flying, especially considering that a worker bee weighs only about 90 mg. The typical loads carried by a foraging honeybee are:

  • Nectar: 30-50 mg (but can take up to 100mg)
  • Water: 25 mg (maximum of 50 mg)
  • Pollen: 16 mg (8 mg in each of their two pollen baskets-- one on each leg their leg)

They won’t carry all of this at the same time. Some honey bees gather nectar only 58%), some gather pollen only (25%) and some gather both (17%). The bees will travel further for pollen because it is a lighter load.

How fast do they fly?

A honey bee can fly between 12 and 20 miles per hour (20 to 32 km/hr). She flies faster when she is not laden down with honey and pollen.

How do they adjust for wind conditions?

Honey bees have to constantly adjust to wind conditions--strong winds, little gusts, and everything in between. The bees use their eyes to see how fast images are moving, their antennae to feel the wind, and their abdomens to adjust for wind speed. A lowered abdomen increases air resistance, while a raised abdomen streamlines the bee’s body.

This information is from an article in Scientific Reports.

How many miles does a honey bee fly during her lifetime?

She can fly up to 500 miles (800 km) during her lifetime.

How many round-trips does a honey bee make per day?

A bee may make up to 30 trips per day to collect nectar and/o pollen.

How far from the hive does a honey bee fly?

Bees will only fly as far as they need to, but may fly as far as 5 to 10 miles from their hive (8 to 16 km).

A Bee Sipping Nectar from a Flower

A bee will visit between 50 and 100 flowers on a single trip.
A bee will visit between 50 and 100 flowers on a single trip. | Source

How many flowers does a honey bee visit in one trip?

She typically visits 50 to 100 flowers during a single collection trip.

How far must a honeybee fly to produce one pound (or a half kg) of honey?

It takes about 55,000 miles of flight to collect enough nectar to make a pound of honey (40,000 km for a half kg of honey).

How much honey does it take to provide the energy for honey bee flight?

It takes a mere one ounce of honey to provide enough energy for a bee to fly around the world. (Not that she ever would.) Keep in mind that the circumference of the Earth is about 25,000 miles (40,000 km) at the Equator.

How do honey bees make it look so easy?

I don’t have an answer for that one. They must use their eyes, their antennae, their abdomens, and their wings in order to fly. They must take in information and compute the correct response while also finding the nectar source, carrying nectar and pollen back to the hive, and remembering where the hive is.

All I can say is that honey bees are truly amazing little marvels.

The video below show how beautiful the wings look in slow motion.

A Slow Motion Video of Honey Bees in Flight

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© 2017 Catherine Giordano

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    • CatherineGiordano profile imageAUTHOR

      Catherine Giordano 

      3 months ago from Orlando Florida

      Peggy Woods: Thank you for your comment. The wings of honey bees are indeed beautiful. I'm glad you enjoyed the video. The video does give us a chance to see the bees up close and personal.

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 

      3 months ago from Houston, Texas

      Bees are amazing creatures. Thanks for compiling all this information about them. That last video with the slow motion of the bees wings flapping was enjoyable to view. Did you notice the iridescence on the wings? It is beautiful.

    • CatherineGiordano profile imageAUTHOR

      Catherine Giordano 

      3 months ago from Orlando Florida

      Patricia Scott: ThanKyou for planting a honeybee friendly garden. A little bit of effort from all of use helps.

    • pstraubie48 profile image

      Patricia Scott 

      3 months ago from sunny Florida

      Pretty amazing little creatures aren't they? I try try to foster a honeybee environment in my yard....so thankful for them. Yesterday when I was at the nursery I chose a plant that had honeybees on board....they moved quite obligingly to the neighboring plant. Have a lovely day....Angels are on the way. ps

    • CatherineGiordano profile imageAUTHOR

      Catherine Giordano 

      10 months ago from Orlando Florida

      Dora Withers: Thanks for your comment. The more I learn about bees, the more they amaze me.

    • MsDora profile image

      Dora Weithers 

      10 months ago from The Caribbean

      What amazing facts about these creatures! Not by chance that they are so well equipped for their flights and survivals.

    • CatherineGiordano profile imageAUTHOR

      Catherine Giordano 

      10 months ago from Orlando Florida

      James C. Moore: yes figuring out how bees fly was a feather in the bonnet for science. (Excuse the mixed metaphor.) Skeptics could no long say, things like,

      "How can you be sure evolution is right when you don't even now how bees fly?"

    • justthemessenger profile image

      James C Moore 

      10 months ago from The Great Midwest

      Bee flight shows us that just because we don't understand something (that is until 2005) doesn't mean it can't happen. Thanks for the revealing hub.

    • CatherineGiordano profile imageAUTHOR

      Catherine Giordano 

      10 months ago from Orlando Florida

      Nikki Khan: My goal is to provide information about honey bees to the general public so that people will appreciate this little marvels more. Thank you for letting me know that you learned something from this article.

    • CatherineGiordano profile imageAUTHOR

      Catherine Giordano 

      10 months ago from Orlando Florida

      Madan: Thanks for letting me know that you liked this article. I'm glad to hear that it was useful to you.

    • nikkikhan10 profile image

      Nikki Khan 

      10 months ago from London

      Hi Catherine,

      very informative and interesting article,,many things learnt through the article what honey bees do and how to create sweet honey for us.

      Thanks for sharing dear.

    • emge profile image

      Madan 

      10 months ago from Abu Dhabi

      Very interesting and reveled alot of facts to me

    • CatherineGiordano profile imageAUTHOR

      Catherine Giordano 

      10 months ago from Orlando Florida

      Chitrangada Sharan: Thanks for your comment. Honey bees are very unique creatures.

    • ChitrangadaSharan profile image

      Chitrangada Sharan 

      10 months ago from New Delhi, India

      Interesting and informative article about honey bees! Great reading about how they fly and how much weight they can carry. They are such important creatures. It’s worrisome to know that they are endangered.

      Thanks for sharing this educative article!

    • CatherineGiordano profile imageAUTHOR

      Catherine Giordano 

      10 months ago from Orlando Florida

      Kari Poulsen: Thanks for letting me know you are a fan of bees. They are truly little marvels. I certainly hope they find a way to survive. Honey bees have been around for 1.3 million years. We don't want to be the ones that drive them to extinction.

    • k@ri profile image

      Kari Poulsen 

      10 months ago from Ohio

      I love learning about bees. They fascinate me. It is so overwhelming to think they are an endangered species. What will we ever do without them?! Thanks for the info on how they fly. I liked the video, their wings are beautiful. :)

    • CatherineGiordano profile imageAUTHOR

      Catherine Giordano 

      10 months ago from Orlando Florida

      Eric Dieker: There are many kinds of bees, but all are really small. Look for the distinctive black an orange markings and little point at the end of the thorax. If you see that, you probably have honey bees. Bees are amazing and very important to agriculture.

    • CatherineGiordano profile imageAUTHOR

      Catherine Giordano 

      10 months ago from Orlando Florida

      The more I learn about them, the more they amaze me. Thanks for your comment.

    • clivewilliams profile image

      Clive Williams 

      10 months ago from Jamaica

      That's a lot of Flaps per second. Honey bees are fascinating creatures.

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 

      10 months ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      Very interesting. From what I can see our Sonora Coastal area has quite tiny bees. It is just amazing how important these little creatures are. Thanks

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