Bees Can’t Fly!

By Ol’ Drone

French entomologists studied and calculated the aerodynamics of honeybee flight in 1934 and concluded that it was impossible for a bee to fly. No one bothered to tell the bees, however and therefore they continued flying as they have done since 40 million years ago.

Bees, as we know them, are said to have been separated from the wasp family which is much older (perhaps 100 million years). Wasps and most ancestors are carnivorous and eat other insects, while honeybees are vegetarians and gather pollen as demonstrated by presence of “pollen baskets” on their hind legs. Prior to that time bisexual plants that needed cross pollination had not existed.

For many years scientists tried to understand animal flight using the aerodynamics principals of airplanes and helicopters. During the past ten years, flight biologists have revealed the mechanism by using robots with “flapping wings”. Findings of researchers at Cal Tech have developed movies of a bee in flight at 6000 frames /sec and learned how insects actually CAN FLY!  Apparently it has to do with short wing beats at extremely high beats / second. The smaller the weight of the insect, the faster the beats must be. For example, a mosquito (light weight) has one of the fastest beats at 400 / sec. No wonder they make that pesky “whine”. By comparison, the honeybee measures at 230 beats / sec. This principal is demonstrated in birds also as tiny birds flit about quickly with high wing speed, but larger birds like crows or big herons flap slowly with their larger wings. Bees need to work harder than most insects as they hover while drinking nectar and often forage and carry home to the hive heavy loads of pollen and nectar double their own body weight. When working harder to stay aloft carrying a heavy load, honeybees can alter their wing stroke amplitude but do not change the wing speed.

Many experiments have been performed to measure just how far a honeybee can fly in order to forage for nectar and honey. The conclusion is that “they can fly as far as they have to”. Bees have been traced as far as 17 miles from their hive but this trip would leave them exhausted and much lighter in weight. Data shows that a flight range of four miles (covering 32,166 acres) would sustain a colony as hive weight is gained at this range. Following the law of “diminishing returns”, when flying a distance greater than four miles, both the bees and the hive depending on them would lose weight. The alfalfa blossom is difficult to collect for the bee and bees from hives placed directly in the alfalfa yard have been found collecting 10 times as much pollen from safflower plants even though these plants were 5 miles away.

Another factoid question about honeybees is how fast can they fly? Some records show that they can attain a speed of 15 miles/hour!

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