One of the things that baffled scientists for a long time was how bees can fly because, apparently, they shouldn’t be able to, given their supposed physical limitations. The initial argument was primarily due to their body size being too big for their wings to lift or their wings being too small to boost their body off the ground. This idea has been around since the 1930s and has even entered pop culture.
So, should bees be able to fly, or are they defying the known laws of physics for their flight?
The notion that bees should not be able to fly is a misconception because bees can fly differently than other insects. Bees can flap their tiny wings with an incredible speed of up to 230 times per second. But instead of flapping up and down, they flap their wings forward and backward . In addition, the angle of bees’ wings creates a small tornado-like phenomenon at the edge of their wings called leading edge vortices (LEV), allowing the bee to have a better attack angle for their flight and lift.
Now, let us look at how bees fly or why they shouldn’t fly.
Should bees be able to fly?
If you’ve ever watched the Bee Movie more than once , you may recall the opening lines in the 2007 animated motion picture.
“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 anyways. Because bees don’t care what humans think is impossible.”
The idea that bees should be physically impossible to take flight is from the 1930s through a French entomologist named Antoine Magnan and has been going around for a while, even getting a line in a movie. He argued that the wings of bees are just too small to lift their large bodies in the air.
To top it off, their bodies are not the only thing heavy about bees. When foraging for food, such as nectar and pollen, bees can even collect and carry a load close to their own weight when they are foraging, making their flight even more curious to scientists.
Though we consciously know that bees can fly because we probably saw bees flying around the yard or in videos, it didn’t stop scientists from finding better and more scientific ways to explain this phenomenon that has challenged many scientists in the past.
I’d also recommend reading Do bees sting Dogs?
How do bees fly?
In the 90s, the more common and accepted idea of how bees fly with rigid wings is likened to the stability of physical principles governing airplane flights, the lift, drag, weight, and trust. However, it was soon discovered that it was not the case, and there should be a better explanation.
Through various experiments using high-speed cameras that can film up to thousands of frames per second to capture bee flights, scientists found that honeybees can flap their wings with an incredible rate of 230 flaps per second, compared to the smaller fruit flies, which flap their wings up to 200 times .
Although it is initially thought that they had inflexible wings, through the films, they discovered that bees don’t fly in the usual manner of flying common to many animals, particularly birds, which is to flap their wings up and down.
In the case of bees, they discovered that bees make fast sweeping motions forward and backward instead of upward and downward.
Bees flying using little vortices.
Another interesting thing about bees’ flight is the presence of what seems like small tornados on the edge of their wings called leading edge vortices (LEV), which is theorized to increase the maximum lift coefficient of natural flying creatures . However, some scientists suggest that these LEVs are not the real reason why bees can fly.
What they discovered is that LEVs are not the main source of the lift for these bees. Instead, this mechanism delivers a higher angle of attack for the bees’ wings. The little tornadoes at the edge of their wings increase the airflow over their wings, allowing them to fly.
These discovered principles about bees’ flight mechanics can also be used in other fields like robotics by creating miniature robotic bees .
The discussion about why bees should have been physically impossible to fly because their bodies are much bigger relative to their wing size has been around for several decades. It even became the opening line for the Bee Movie, which only delivered a wrong idea of bee’s flight.
However, this idea is now widely considered a misconception because bees can fly. They just have a different way of flying to allow them to carry their weight and even the added weight of their collected pollen and nectar trapped in their body hairs.
Bees can flap their wings up to 230 times per second, which is incredibly fast for their size compared to other insects. They also flap their wings forward and back instead of flapping up and down. Another important principle regarding the flight of bees is the leading edge vortices (LEV).
The leading edge vortices are small “tornados” that form at the edge of their wings, allowing them to have a better attack angle and lift their bodies. This solves the bee flight paradox that has been around for some time.
 – Live Science – “Scientists Finally Figure Out How Bees Fly”
 – Bee Movie. (2022, September 2). In Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bee_Movie
 – Christopher M. Jernigan. (2017, October 24). How Do Bees Fly?. ASU – Ask A Biologist. Retrieved September 16, 2022, from https://askabiologist.asu.edu/how-do-bees-fly
 – Mostafa R. A. Nabawy and William J. Crowther. (26 July 2017). The role of the leading edge vortex in lift augmentation of steadily revolving wings: a change in perspective. Retrieved September 21, 2022, from https://doi.org/10.1098/rsif.2017.0159
 – Emma Arrigo. (2017, September 6). How do bees get their fat little bodies off the ground? Retrieved September 21, 2022, from https://blogs.unimelb.edu.au/sciencecommunication/2017/09/06/how-do-bees-get-their-fat-little-bodies-off-the-ground/