Bee Wings

Buckfast Honey Bees Close Up
Bees have two sets of wings to help them fly and carry out various important tasks including communicating and temperature control

Bees don’t flap their wings up and down as we may think. Their wings twist and swivel to take flight. The special makeup of bee wings makes it possible for the bees to use them for purposes beyond flying.

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    How Many Wings Do Bees Have and What Are They Used For?

    Bees have four wings: two forewings and two hindwings. The forewings are larger than the hindwings.

    Wings are for flying. For honeybees, they’re also essential tools to maintaining the health of hives and honey.

    • Flying: Bee wings beat 230 times per second. This is the source of bees’ telltale buzzing sound.
    • Dehydrating honey: A large part of transforming nectar into honey is dehydrating. Bees do this by using their digestive system to absorb nectar moisture and by flying around with nectar in their mouths. One of the last steps of forming honey is placing it in a cell. Then, bees will beat their wings to further dry the honey.
    • Communicating: Bee dancing is a form of communication. They beat their wings while shaking their bodies and waggling. These moves translate to other bees how close food supply is.
    • Temperature control: Honeybee flight muscles must be at least 86 degrees Fahrenheit to take flight. This can be compared to humans shivering to get warm. They can also regulate their body temperature when they are too hot.
    • Queen brooding: The queen bee and her subjects use their temperature control abilities to heat up the hive and the queen so that her eggs can keep warm.
    • Nest ventilation: The fast beating of bee wings circulates airflow within the hive, creating a more comfortable environment for the bees.
    • Hydrofoil: Bees getting stuck in water is a common sight, but they aren’t completely helpless when it comes to drowning. Bees use their wings to create waves so that they can propel themselves forward. This motion can be likened to “surfing” into safety.

     

    While bee wings themselves are sturdy, the muscles that keep them moving are one of the strongest parts of bees.

    close up of bee wings
    Between the top and bottom membrane layers bee wings carry blood vessels and nerves

    What Do Bee Wings Look Like?

    Bee wings are each around 9.7 mm long when the forewing is on top of the hindwing. This is a little shorter than half of a dime’s length.

    Bee wings are translucent in colour. They are thin and look fragile upon observation. Bee wings are strong and are built to carry bees across great distances.

    Do All Species Have the Same Pattern on Their Wings?

    No, not all species of bees have the same wing pattern. Honeybee wings are different from those of a bumblebee or a carpenter bee. However, it’s easier to tell the species apart by their marginal cell shape. This refers to the shape of their forewings.

    What Are Bee Wings Made up Of?

    There are three layers to a bee’s wing:

    1. Top layer: A thin, sheer membrane that is like a human’s fingernail cuticle.
    2. Middle layer: This is where the hemolymph lies, which are the nerves and blood vessels.
    3. Bottom layer: The same membrane as the top layer.

     

    The top and bottom layers encase the middle one protecting the hemolymph.

    Resilin is an elastic protein that makes up the joints of bee wings. Resilin can be likened to the firm plastic film. This gives the wings flexibility so that they don’t break upon impact.

    In addition to resilin, bee wings are made up of membranes, bee blood (hemolymph), nerves, hairs, and breathing tubes.

    For such a small part of the bee, the wings hold more than what the naked eye can see. They are strong enough to withstand the impact of bees running into things. However, they are still fragile. Wings can deteriorate due to old age or even viruses, like the deformed wing virus.

    Bee wings don’t break easily, but they do go through wear and tear. Old bees will most likely have ragged, deformed, or weak wings. A bee cannot regrow its wings once broken.

    bee wing connecting to the thorax
    Bees move their wings with the muscles located in their thorax

    What Are the Wings Attached To?

    Bee wings are attached to the thorax. This is the part between the head and the striped end of the body. The thorax is also where the bee is covered in fuzzy hair.

    The thorax is made of muscles that allow for asynchronous flight. Asynchronous flight muscles allow wings to beat faster than synchronous ones, which bees do not have. That is why bee wings beat at 230 times per second while insects, like butterflies, beat their wings about 20 times per second.

    To move the wings, the vertical muscles of the thorax pull from the top while the longitudinal muscles pull from the end.

    How Are Bee Wings Positioned?

    Forewings lay on top of the hindwings when the bee is not flying. The two parts come apart when at rest.

    The forewings and hindwings come together when it’s time to fly. There are minuscule hooks that attach the two parts together. The row of hooks that attach the forewings and hindwings together is the hamulus or hamuli. They come together in a motion called “wing coupling” to prepare for takeoff.

    Hamuli is derived from the term for “hooked”. On bee wings, they are like hook-shaped teeth that latch together. Humans also have hamuli. We have a hamate bone shaped like a hook that connects the wrist to the hand.

    How Do Bees Use Their Wings to Communicate?

    As mentioned earlier, bees “dance” and buzz their wings to communicate to hive mates about the presence of food supply.

    Honeybees are sensitive to electrical fields. Electric fields are a natural phenomenon. Humans emit electric fields just like other creatures.

    What humans do not have are electroreceptors. Electroreception is the ability to detect electric fields.

    Honeybees use electroreception to communicate as well. This ability is what makes the bee’s waggle dance effective. Honeybees are able to sense electric fields emitted by nectar supply through their antennae.

    Honey Bee Preparing To Pollinate Macadamia Blossom
    Bee wings are capable of flying up to 500 miles before having to retire

    How Many Flight Miles Are Bee Wings Capable of Doing?

    After 500 miles of flight, a bee’s wings may have to retire. Worker honey bees fly 4-6 miles on a single trip. A worker bee toiling in the summer may become spent within a month or two.

    Since queen bees don’t fly as often as worker bees, they can live for a couple of years. Drone bees don’t have the workload of worker bees, but they don’t get the chance to make the most out of their wings; they either die in mating or after the hive kicks them out.

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