At first glance, the question may sound silly, “can bees fly?” They can fly because we see them buzzing about in our backyard, flying from one flower to the next. Even though we have all seen it with our own eyes, there is still a lingering question of how it’s possible. They have little wings and big bodies, and it makes little sense. Everything we know about airplanes taking off doesn’t seem to apply to bees. Does it? Can bees fly?
Top Myth About Bees
The question about how bees can fly has been around for a long time, but in 2007, the question became wildly popular thanks to the film, Bee Movie. If you’re a parent, you’ve probably seen this movie more than once. While the movie was great for showing how hard bees worked, there was one part that wasn't accurate.
During the opening of the film, a narrator said something that caused quite a flutter, "According to all known laws of aviation, there is no way that a bee should be able to fly. Its wings are too small to get its fat little body off the ground. The bee, of course, flies anyway. Because bees don't care what humans think is impossible."
Suddenly, people were asking, can bees fly, and how do they do it? The popular myth, that bees shouldn’t be able to fly, went mainstream. Was it possible that understanding how a bee flies was something that eluded scientists?
The quote from the film actually stems from the idea that a scientist back in 1930 was asked how a bee could fly with such small wings and a plump body. The scientist made some quick estimates and calculations and replied that given the way airplanes work, bees theoretically shouldn’t be able to fly.
However, this scientist wasn’t accurate in his quick thought process and didn’t consider, or truly study, all the aspects of a bee’s wing pattern. Luckily, scientists today have taken the time to research and observe bees flying about, and we know much more than we did in 1930.
Why We Need Bees To Fly
Bees make our flowers bloom, our crops produce food, and keep our trees reproducing. They do this by pollinating and collecting nectar to produce honey. We need bees to fly from flower to flower, from bush to bush, and tree to tree. It’s what makes the world go around. Well, they don’t actually make the earth spin, but they are critical in keeping the earth a sustainable place.
To Collect Pollen
Every time a bee flies to a flower, the hair on their bodies and legs pick up pollen. That pollen sticks to them. The next time a bee flies to another flower, it drops off a little of that pollen into the new bloom. This is critical in the process of reproduction in flowers. From the pollen that a bee carries with it, a flower can produce fruit and a seed.
To Collect Nectar
Bees fly around in search of nectar. This sweet substance contained within a flower draws a bee into its bloom and allows the bee to attract pollen. Bees collect the nectar to take back and feed their colonies. Nectar is used in the production of honey, which is a food source for not only bees but many other animals in the wild, too.
Can Bees Fly?
Yes, yes they can; however, the question of ‘can bees fly’ is tricky. We know they can fly because we see them fly, but how do they get off the ground? Their wings are small and their bodies are plump. Not to mention, they carry the extra weight of all that pollen and nectar.
To answer the question of can bees fly, it will help if we first understand the basics of flight. If we understand how things get off the ground, then we can understand how a bee can lift itself into the air, even with all that extra weight attached to it.
Basics Of flying
Scientifically speaking, for something, let’s say an airplane, to make it off the ground, there are four key elements to take into consideration: lift, thrust, drag, and weight.
An airplane must have lift. Airplanes achieve lift from the air under the wings that push the plane upwards. To achieve lift, an airplane must have force to create the air under the wings, and this is the thrust part. The thrust comes from an airplane's engine. The force from an engine creates the thrust needed to then push the air up and around the wings, which gives the airplane lift.
Drag is what slows a plane down and keeps it on the ground. In order for a plane to be lifted into the air, the thrust must exceed the drag.
If we think about large airplanes, they weigh a lot. For airplanes to get off the ground, the weight and the lift of the airplane must be in balance. This is why big airplanes have big wings. They need lots of lift, or air under the wings, to make it into the air.
When you put all four elements together, lift, thrust, drag, and weight, you have the basics of flight. When they are all in line and well balanced, an airplane can make it off the ground and fly.
The problem with the myth that bees shouldn’t be able to fly, is that we are only focusing on the four elements of how an airplane flies. We think about big wings to balance out the weight. This is something bees don’t have. To understand how a bee flies, we need to look at a bee’s flight pattern.
Science Behind It
Back in 2005, researchers inspected the way bees fly. They created a small chamber and filled it with a mixture less dense than air. By filling the chamber with oxygen and helium, they created an environment in which the bees needed to work harder to stay afloat. Researchers noticed that when the bees needed to work harder, they extended their wing stroke. They didn’t just flap their wings more as we’d expect.
Researchers in this same study noticed that bees flap their wings around 230 times per second. This is higher than that of a fruit fly, which flaps around 200 times per second.
In another study, bee’s flight movements were observed by filming hours of bees flying. Researchers then analyzed high-quality still shots of the bee's wings. This showed scientists the exact wing movement and pattern the bees were using.
Turns out, bees flap their wings back and forth and not in an up and down pattern like scientists had previously thought.
How Do Bees Fly?
If we take the principles of an airplane and apply what scientist know about bees, we can get an idea of how a bee flies.
When a bee flaps its wings rapidly, they do so in a rotating motion. When you put speed and rotation together, you create a vortex on the upper side of their wings. The air around the bee's wings takes on a thickness, which gives the bees a little lift.
When the vortex around a bee’s rapidly flapping wings is created, a low pressure develops and aids in the lift. The thrust then comes from the rapid movement of their wings.
Let’s take under consideration a bee's body size compared to their wings. Their wings are small but because of the rotating movement and rapid flapping, the lift and thrust balance the drag and weight of the bee. When a bee is carrying more load, like pollen and nectar, and they need to work harder, they extend their wing stroke.
The dynamics of a bee flying differs from that of an airplane taking off. If we understand the different ways in which a bee creates lift, and an airplane gets its lift, then it is very plausible that a bee can fly. Then we can answer that old question of, can bees fly.
Scientists are still studying the way bees fly. There is still much more to understand about their wing patterns and movement. Some scientists think learning about a bee’s wing pattern can translate into designing airplanes with better flying mechanisms and ability. Imagine an airplane designed to carry heavier loads or hover in place.
We should never underestimate nature or its awesome abilities. There are lots of mysteries in the world today that stump scientists, but the question, "can bees fly?", is not one.
What started as a myth that found its way into popular culture is just that, a myth. Research has shown us how bees fly. Scientists understand that you can’t just look at how airplanes fly to figure out the physics of how bees get off the ground. To know how a bee flies, you must look at the equation differently.
Perhaps one day, this equation will help scientists and designers create something even more amazing than they way airplanes fly today.