I took this picture in a client’s garden a few weeks ago, and found myself instantly enamored with the detail in the bee’s wings. Constantly carrying a camera on me, paired with constantly being amongst dirt and the like, tends to make for great pictures. This bee picture being one of them, as it quickly became my muse on the subject of bee’s wings.
The Western or European honey bee (Apis mellifera) have two pairs of wings, the fore wing being larger and the hind being the smaller of the two. Each wing is flat, thin, membranous and strengthened by various veins. The wings have 8 sets of muscles that move these wings in the precise way necessary for flight. A honey bee’s wings are arranged in two pairs that are coupled together by a row of hooks on the hind wing that grip in a groove that exists on the rear edge of the fore wing. As the wings unfold for flight the hooks automatically fall into the groove and lock the two wings into a single aerofoil surface. Although the wings are coupled they are still relatively flexible due to a chemical that moves through the hollow veins. This traveling chemical allows for the wings to bend considerably while in flight.
However, just flapping the wings does not result in flight. The driving force results from a propeller-like twist given to each wing during the upstroke and the down-stroke. Slight variations in the actual angles of the wings determine whether the bee hovers, moves forwards or turns. When bees need to compensate for heavier cargo, they don’t flap their wings faster – they stretch out their wing stroke amplitude. This way of compensation, has spurred much research for model designs for aircrafts that hover in place, and can carry loads for disaster relief efforts.
Honey bees have an incredibly rapid wing beat. The fruit fly (that is 1/8th the size) flaps it’s wings 200 times each second – the much larger honey bee flaps 230 times per second (this is just for hovering – not transporting pollen, etc.). As an insect gets smaller, their aerodynamic performance decreases and to compensate they tend to flaps their wings faster. A honey bee can fly for up to six miles in one flight, and as fast as 15 miles per hour.
Bees buzz by generating rapid wing-beats that create wind vibrations, which people hear as buzzing. The larger the bee, the slower the wing beat, and lower the buzzing. Other bees, such as bumblebees, are capable of vibrating their wing muscles and thorax (one form of buzzing) while visiting flowers – this helps shake pollen off flowers for easier collection. Honey bees are incapable of this kind of pollen collection, thus quiet while foraging. Bees use their wings for flight, as well as thermoregulation, hive communication, and pollen harvest/collection.