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