The question as to how bees fly has been asked without a solid answer for many years. It has been one that has perplexed scientists the world over and has even been pointed out as one of their many failures it is even the subject of a fairly popular myth. The one that states that bees shouldn't be able to fly. As we know, bees are rather large insects, and they carry large loads on occasion.
However, they have very small wings in comparison to their body mass. It seems unlikely that wings of such demure size could lift and propel an insect so large, especially with such accuracy. However, this is exactly what they do. Yet to figure out the mechanics behind their flight has been a difficult thing. The wings of a bee can move so fast that studying them and even seeing them is nearly impossible.
It just doesn't seem possible for them to fly based on what we know of flight in other creatures. However, it is clear that they do not fly like many of their flying friends. Birds and most insects are completely different when it comes to their aerial skills. We have long since been able to figure out the secrets there, even going so far as to model our own flight plans after them. But bees are not similar in the least.
However, there has been a breakthrough in how bees fly. Using high-speed digital photography to create freeze-frame images of bees while flying, scientists have begun to unravel the mystery. They then created a giant robotic imitation of a bee's wing. This model is able to move freely as a wing would in nature.
Another set of scientists have confirmed the results by attaching small mirrors and glass to bees and then let them fly around in a laser field. By researching this, we can now see and even understand the bee's amazing physic defying skills. However, the results are quite unconventional and startling, to say the least. So just how do bees fly?
The Mechanics – How Bees Fly
There are several aspects that go into the flying skills of the bee. And most of them differ greatly from other similar creatures. What may be the most surprising aspect is not necessarily what they do, but the combination in which they do them to achieve skilled flight. “Short choppy wing strokes, very rapid rotation of the wing as it flops over and reverses direction, and a very fast wing-beat frequency,” combine to create flight for the robust and ever busy bee.
Just reading that line written by one of the scientists who performed the freeze frame research doesn't seem to offer much insight to how bees fly. When we think of flight, we do not think of short and choppy motions, nor flopping of any kind. But these are words that accurately describe a bees flight pattern.
One of the major and most proven facts in flight is that aerodynamic performance decreases with size. Therefore, flying animals have to compensate for their lack of size for faster wing motion and frequency. For example, mosquitoes flap their wings with a frequency of over 400 beats per second. The fruit fly, which is about 80 times smaller than a bee but quite a bit larger than the mosquito, beats their wings about 200 times per second.
So it would seem that a bee would move their wings at a much slower rate. However, this is not the case. In fact, bees flap their wings about 230 times per second. And this is their speed when hovering. It is noted that their wing speed does not increase very much if they are flying quickly or if they are carrying heavy cargo even over long distances. Instead, they compensate in a much different way. One that has experts scratching their heads and yearning for answers to even more questions.
Most flying insects and animals move their wings using an arc. And, depending on how fast they are going or how much they are carrying they increase their arc. Most animals are also able to move their wings in a wide arc that covers nearly half of a circle when the need arises as birds do. Their wings move in an upward, and then downward fashion and the degree that their wings cover is about 180?.
Bees, however, while they can increase or decrease the angle of wing coverage based on weight, their wings can only cover a 90? angle. This helps to explain why they must beat their wings so fast in comparison to most other insects their size. However, it is important to note that when they carry heavy loads of nectar or pollen or even larvae and eggs or need to generate more power and therefore increase their flying speed, their wing speed frequency does not increase at all.
Image by AskNature.org
They may engage the full arc coverage of their wings but do not move them at a higher frequency rate. This is startling and bizarre to be sure. As many scientists will tell you, the method seems to be counterproductive. It would seem to be much more efficient if they moved their wings at a higher rate of speed rather than at a wider arc or use the combination of both.
Most scientists that have studied this phenomenon believe that this may have to do with their flight muscles. One theory is that if a bee's wings do not move fast and at a consistent speed, then the muscles won't be able to give the bee enough power to stay aloft or to move it from place to place. Often, when studying animals and wildlife, we learn or begin to understand that these creatures have evolved to become the way that they are currently.
They adapt to their surroundings to make life more bearable and to become the best at what they do. We often consider these creatures to be in “their prime” so to speak. They take on different features or habits to survive in the current ecosystem and climate. However, this is one case where we can see that evolution may not have worked out all the kinks yet. Maybe there are not in their prime even if they are some of the best at what they do. Scientists around the world are a bit perplexed by the bee's current flight method. But it obviously works for the bees.
Flying insects and animals tend to move their wings in an up and down motion creating lift, like birds. Their wings force air down which in turn pushes their wings and them upward. Bees do not do this, however. How bees fly, and their flight pattern is much more exotic, more exotic than most flight mechanisms available to insects. In fact, these small creatures rotate their wings, almost in a circular fashion. They have even been compared to mini-hurricanes. Their wings move forward and then rotate sideways.
Then they move backward and rotate around sideways again. This angle of the wing creates small vortices like that within a hurricane. The eye or center of the vortices has a lower air pressure than that of the surrounding air. These pockets of lower pressure also known as eddies are kept above the wings creating lift with little to no drag. With such efficient flight and with such little drag, it is no wonder that various militaries have become interesting in finding ways to mimic this type of flight.
It would be great if they could design an aircraft with this technology for uses in disaster relief and surveillance, such as earthquakes and tsunamis. Aircraft that could hover as well as be able to carry large loads would be a great asset in many circumstances. Many other industries are beginning to like the idea more and more, as well, which is no surprise.
How Bees Fly – Conclusion
It doesn't take much except for a quick look outside to see that bees can fly and have been flying for hundreds of years. However, it has been a mystery for humans for far too long as to how bees fly. It just seems to defy all known physics. Now that their secrets have been unlocked, there are still many questions. We now know how they fly using tremendous wing speed and movement patterns that seem far too exotic and high tech for such little creatures.
At first, it doesn't seem to be a very efficient way to fly, and even scientists are perplexed as to why this is the method that they have adopted. Yet they succeed in using these techniques with flying colors. They not only succeed but have become an inspiration for many around the world seeking alternative methods of flight that could be more efficient for mankind.
The more research we can continue to do on these creatures, the more we will learn and understand about the amazing world around us. We may even learn how to make it a little better than when we found it.