Bee Wings

The Science Behind Bee Wings: How They Work and What They Do

Bee wings are a marvel of nature, allowing these tiny insects to fly and perform essential tasks like pollination. But there is more to these delicate appendages than meets the eye. In this guide, we’ll explore the anatomy and function of bee wings, as well as their importance to the survival of bee colonies.

Difference of wings between Castes

The body of a worker bee boasts small wings that remain flat against its body. However, the larger wingspan of drones extends all the way to their abdomen’s end. The queen bee‘s wings, on the other hand, stand out due to their splayed-out positioning, diverging from the tucked-in wings of her counterparts.

These distinctions in wing size and configuration highlight the different roles undertaken by each bee in a hive. With their smaller wings, workers are better suited for tasks like gathering nectar and pollen, while drones’ larger wings allow them to move swiftly and mate with queens. On the other hand, the queen’s wings position her for a unique role as the sole reproducer in the hive.

Bee Wings Anatomy

How many pairs of wings does a bee have?

Honey bees have four wings (Two on each side) – a pair of forewings and a smaller pair of hind wings. When the bees are not in flight, the hind wings are covered underneath the forewings, making it appear as if the bee only has two wings. They measure about 9.7 mm long. The hind wings are equipped with hooks called hamuli, which lock onto grooves in the forewings during flight. They serve as a rudder by providing direction of flight.

This enables both pairs of wings to move together as a single surface. The wings are powered by two sets of muscles located in the thorax that raise and lower the wings in alternating contractions. While bees are not in flight, the larger forewings cover the smaller hind wings in the relaxed position. It is common to mistake these wings as a single pair, but in reality, they are two distinct pairs of wings that work together in synchronized motion during flight.

Chitin and Resilin

The joints of bee wings are made from Resilin, an elastic protein, similar to a strong plastic film. It allows the wings to be flexible, so they do not break easily. Although bees wings may look thin and fragile, they are strong and durable.

The composition of the insect wing consists mainly of cuticle arranged in tubular veins and delicate connecting membranes. The entire wing structure is assembled in a matrix of natural biopolymer (Chitin). The wings display a thin, transparent layer of chitin that glistens with a silvery radiance similar to glass. Notably, chitin is a tough material that is found in the exoskeletons of many insects and crustaceans, and also plays an important role in the strength and durability of the wings. It is comparable to keratin, the material from which fingernails are made of.

These structural elements are essential for supporting the weight of the insect during flight, as well as providing protection from environmental stressors.

Wing Pattern

Illustration by nestiny.com

The wing pattern of bees varies across different species. For instance, honeybees, bumblebees, and carpenter bees have distinct wing patterns. To distinguish between species, it’s best to examine the shape of their forewing’s marginal cell. The marginal cell shape provides critical information for bee identification, and it’s a valuable tool for entomologists and researchers studying bee populations.

How do Bee Wings Work?

Illustration by Wisconsinpollinators

To unravel the mystery of how bees are able to fly, researchers delved into the intricate workings of their wings. What they discovered was quite remarkable – bee wings are far from rigid structures and instead move about in a fluid and dynamic manner during flight. With each sweep of their wings forward and backward, bees generate enough lift to soar through the air with ease.

Bee wings work by creating lift and thrust through the flapping motion of the wings. When the bee flaps its wings, it creates a vortex of air that moves over the wings, creating lift. The bee can control the direction and speed of its flight by adjusting the angle and speed of its wing flaps.

Other insects have wings that are more efficient with a longer motion from front to back and a slower wing beat. However, bees have adopted a less efficient flying style in order to carry heavier loads. They adapted their flying style so they can transport large amounts of pollen and nectar from flowers back to the hive.

Bees Wings Morphology

Thorax Muscles

Bees wings are asynchronous, meaning their flight muscles contract more than once per nerve impulse. This allows the bees to flap at high frequencies. The bee thorax houses two complete systems to control wing movement: the direct and indirect systems. These systems work in tandem but have distinct functions.

Direct System

The direct system controls individual movements of each wing through muscles that attach directly to the wings. A bee can move her wings independently in various directions. This can be perpendicular to her abdomen, forward and aft, or even rest them over her back. These muscles function similarly to those in arms and legs.

Indirect System

The indirect system is attached to the inside of the flexible thorax. So when the thorax is moved, it results in movement in the wings.

Vertical and Horizontal Indirect Muscles
Illustration by (Taken from Form and Function, Lesley Goodman) Transverse sections through the thorax showing the main flight muscles during the upstroke (upper pair of diagrams) and during the downstroke (lower pair). a) Direct and indirect dorsoventral flight muscles, and b) indirect dorsoventral and longitudinal muscles. Muscles shown dark when contracted, light when relaxied and stretched. Heavy arrows show direction of wing movement. Light arrows indicate direction of movement of the roof (notum) of the thorax.

Indirect muscles also come in two types, vertical and horizontal. The first set of muscles, called the longitudinal (vertical) muscles, run from the top to bottom of the thorax. When these muscles contract, the bee’s thorax becomes shorter from top to bottom, causing the wings to move up. These muscles are often referred to as “elevator muscles.”

The second set of muscles, known as the depressors, run from the front to the back of the thorax (horizontal). Their contraction makes the thorax shorter from front to back but taller from top to bottom. This results in the wings moving down.

These two sets of muscles work together. They contract and relax alternately to move the wings very fast at approximately 230 cycles per second. This is faster than the speed of nerve impulses between the brain and muscles. Such a swift wing movement capability allows bees to maneuver swiftly and efficiently in a variety of environments.


Veins provide essential mechanical support for wings during flight. The set of longitudinal veins are partially branched and linked to each other in a crosswise manner, which enhances wing stability. Transparent membranes are stretched between the veins, creating a thin yet sturdy structure. This unique pattern of longitudinal and transverse veins is called venation. It is a vital component for stable and efficient flight.

Bee wings consist of a complex structure made up of three distinct layers. The top and bottom layers are composed of a transparent membrane which is supported by a network of veins responsible for carrying bee’s “blood” (hemolymph). Between the layers is an intricate network of nerves that allows the bee to control its wings during flight, and a set of breathing tubes, which aid in the bee’s respiration.

Honey bee wings have a simple venation pattern, making them easy to distinguish from other insects. Precise measurements of the wing’s different sections can also help identify different honey bee subspecies or races. Researchers are increasingly using automated image processing algorithms to analyze these measurements accurately, providing a more detailed understanding of honey bees’ wing anatomy.

The presence of such complex structures within the wings of bees highlights the incredible level of adaptation and specialization that has occurred over time within the bee species.

Other Features

The wings of insects possess numerous features that may not be immediately visible to the naked eye. For instance, it is quite common to find hairy structures on the outer surface of wings, which can appear on both the upper and lower sides.

Depending on the species, the length, position, and density of these hairs can vary considerably. Bees have a stiffened area along the front edge of their forewings that reinforces the wing’s leading edge, which cuts through the air. This area consists of two parts known as the pre-stigma and stigma.

The size and shape of the stigma vary according to the genus of the bee, making it a useful tool for identification. The pre-stigma and stigma are crucial structures for bees, as they aid in navigation and movement through different environments. Additionally, the stiffness of these structures allows bees to fly at high speeds and maneuver with precision.

Are Bees Wings only for Flying?

No, honey bees wings also play a vital role to maintain the health of hives and honey. Bees wings have 6 important functions, including flying.

  1. Flying
  2. Pollination
  3. Communication
  4. Dehydrating honey
  5. Controlling the temperature within the hive, including ventilation and keeping the brood warm
  6. Survival (Hydrofoil)


The main use for bees wings is to fly so they can forage and swarm. In order to fly, the flight muscles need to be warmed up to a minimum temperature of 86F (30C).

The Role of Bee Wings in Pollination

In addition to allowing bees to fly and navigate, bee wings play a crucial role in pollination. As bees fly from flower to flower, their wings create a static charge that attracts pollen to their bodies. This pollen is then transferred to other flowers, allowing for cross-pollination and the fertilization of plants.

Without the help of bees and their wings, many plants would not be able to reproduce and thrive. This makes bee wings not only fascinating structures, but also essential components of our ecosystem.


The wings also play a crucial role in communication and social behavior among bees. The movement of the wings produce buzzing sounds and vibrations that are used to communicate with other bees. See also Waggle Dance.

Research also shows that individual bees act as receivers and senders of signals by releasing pheromones and fanning their wings to direct the signals backward. This behavior was observed in swarming bees.

Dehydrating Honey

To transform nectar into honey, bees use their digestive system and flying ability to dehydrate the honey. They absorb the moisture of the nectar and actively fly with it in their mouths.

The final step of the honey-making process involves placing the honey in a cell. Here, the bees aerate the honey by beating their wings, which facilitates the drying process even further.

Temperature Control

Bees are sensitive to changes in temperature. They can regulate their body temperature when they feel hot or cold by using their wings. This ability enables them to maintain the optimum temperature range required for their survival. It ensures the queen maintains her ability to lay eggs and the brood has the optimum temperature to develop.

Keeping Cool

The temperature in the hive needs to remains at around a steady 95 degrees to ensure the survival of the colony. When faced with hot weather, some workers collect water. The water is taken back to the hive where the bees flap their wings to generate a refreshing mist with the collected water. They do this by using their wings to fan air or water over their bodies to cool themselves during periods of increased heat. This brings down the temperature in the hive, preventing overheating.

Keeping warm

In colder weather, they use the muscles in their bodies to produce heat by shivering, ensuring that the hive remains at a comfortable temperature for the colony. This remarkable ability to control the temperature of the hive through natural means is a testament to the resourcefulness and adaptability.


Bees use an efficient ventilation system. A group of bees positions themselves near the entrance. They use their wings to fan out the warm air and create an outward current that draws in cooler air from outside. This clever technique ensures that the bees can maintain a comfortable, ventilated living environment.


Honey bees may not be great swimmers, but they do have a unique ability to propel themselves forward in water. Using their wings, they can create waves that help them surf towards safety. While they may not be built for swimming, bees have evolved this skill to avoid drowning and ensure their survival.

Despite their ability to swim, bees cannot breathe underwater. They rely on air holes called spiracles to draw in oxygen. These holes are located all over a bee’s body and connect to air sacs within the body. This allows bees to stay submerged for up to five minutes, giving them ample time to use their wave-creating abilities to swim towards safety.

Overall, bee wings are a remarkable example of the incredible capabilities of nature and the science behind them.

The Importance of Bee Wing Research

Bee wing research is crucial for understanding the complex mechanisms behind bee flight and pollination. By studying the structure and function of bee wings, scientists can gain insights into how bees navigate their environment, how they interact with flowers, and how they contribute to the health of our ecosystems.

This research can also inform the development of new technologies and materials that mimic the properties of bee wings, leading to innovations in fields such as aviation and robotics. Overall, the importance of bee wing research cannot be overstated, as it has the potential to unlock new discoveries and solutions for some of the most pressing challenges facing our planet.

Threats to Bee Wing Health and Conservation Efforts

Bee wings possess remarkable resilience but are subject to wear and tear over time. As bees age, their wings become increasingly prone to damage, deformity, and weakness. Unfortunately, wings cannot regenerate once broken, leaving bees unable to fly and perform their essential role in pollination.

Besides aging, the deformed wing virus also poses a significant threat to bee wings, causing deterioration and putting the entire bee colony at risk. Maintaining strong and healthy wings is crucial for bees’ survival, and protection against viruses is essential in preserving the bee population.

Bee wings are not only fascinating structures, but they are also crucial for the survival of bee populations. Unfortunately, bee wings are under threat from a variety of factors, including habitat loss, pesticide use, and climate change. These threats can weaken bee wings and make it harder for bees to fly and perform their important tasks.

To address these challenges, conservation efforts are underway to protect bee habitats, reduce pesticide use, and promote sustainable agriculture practices. By working to protect bee wings and the bees that rely on them, we can help ensure the health and well-being of our ecosystems and the planet as a whole.


Precise studies conducted on large groups of honey bees have revealed an asymmetry between the right and left wings in terms of their shape and size. It has been discovered that the right wing is generally larger than the left wing, although the differences between the two are minimal. Despite being subtle, this intrinsic characteristic of honey bees’ wings is consistent across the species.

What is Deformed Wing Virus?

Deformed Wing Virus (DWV) is a disease that affects bees. The symptoms of deformed wing virus are easily recognizable in adult honey bees. They are characterized by twisted and shriveled wings, bloated abdomens, decreased body size, and discoloration. Moreover, deformed wing virus can adversely impact the learning and memory capacity of infected honey bees. It is essential to note that deformed wing virus mainly affects the Varroa mite-infested honeybee colonies, leading to a reduced lifespan of infected bees.

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  1. I’m looking for any and all scientific studies that point to a causal connection between Deformed Wing Virus and suppressed ability of bees to thermo-regulate, or at least, ability of bees to fan their wings.

    Thank you so much.

    1. Thank you for your comment. An article discussing DWV will be published shortly, which should include the information and sources you’re seeking. Stay tuned!

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