The Secret of How Bees Fly
You’ve probably noticed that bees almost always fly super-fast.
While out walking recently a bee darted past. It moved so fast it was little more than a black and yellow blur. Bees do pull up and hover when something catches their interest, and then they take off buzzing again.
Their gossamer wings move at warp speed in a way that if you didn't know they have wings it would be hard to figure it out.
You often hear a bee approach before you see it, due to a unique buzzing sound that is quite loud for such a tiny insect.
What is the secret behind the bees’ ability to fly? The buzz gives you an excellent clue—very rapid vibrations. When you look at a bee’s body, you’ll see three major parts. The head, a middle section and then the tail end which is large and striped.
The middle part is the thorax and it is where the action is—meaning 4 wings and 6 legs. This is the “hub” of a bee’s movement. A bee’s 4 wings are hinged to muscles in the thorax, so when a bee moves its thorax up and down, the wings move too, but they don’t flap up and down.
This 4:03-minute video by michiganshooter was filmed using a Phantom v2511 camera that can shoot over 1 million frames per second (creating slow motion upon playback):
Here’s the secret to their amazing dexterity in movement. Their wings twist in an exclusive figure-8 pattern, combining incredible speed with short, choppy rotations, and can beat over 200 times per second, according to Steve Sheppard, an entomologist at Washington State University.
Twisting bee wings create a vortex like a small tornado, which is caused when bees churn their wings and spin the air around them. This gives them the ability to hover in mid-air, and propel their body forward, backward, up or down, just by rotating the air around themselves.
Just like birds, bees direct their wings through brain signals, but there is a difference. Most birds translate one electrical brain signal into one wing flap. The bee’s brain instructs the flight muscles and the wings move.
Bees rely on something called resonance frequency, so their wings work differently. One initial movement starts a stream of very fast vibrations. Their brains do not need to signal for every rotation because their wings beat by vibrating. According to Sheppard, all they have to do is send a signal once in a while and it is sufficient to keep the muscle bouncing. This blend of vibration and rotation lets bees beat and move their wings at incredible speed with each brain signal.
One type of bird flies more like bees than like birds. The hummingbird beats its wings with vibration, which is rare for a bird. Some other insects, like flies and beetles, fly with this method as well as bees.
This is just another fascinating fact that keeps us all in awe of bees, these bee-utiful insects. So next time you hear the buzz before you see the blur race past you, think about the amazing bee wings and know there is a whole lot more going on than meets the eye behind that buzz.
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