Bees truly are some of the most amazing creatures on Earth, and probably the single most impressive insects.
From their incredible work ethic and feats of engineering to their tireless production of honey, there’s always something new to learn and admire about bees.
Even their biology is impressive. Have you ever considered the acrobatic flight of the humble bee?
Speaking of flight, how many wings does a bee have anyway?
Bees actually have four wings in total: two forewings and two hindwings.
I know it’s hard to get a good look at them when they are in flight, and it seems like they never hold still on the ground, but it sure appears that bees have just two wings.
In truth, they do have four but the reason for their appearance is truly fascinating! I will tell you why, and share many more facts about bees’ wings in this article.
Do All Bees Have Four Wings?
Yes, all bees have four wings. This includes honey bees, bumblebees, carpenter bees, and many other species besides.
These insects belong to the order Hymenoptera, which also includes ants and wasps, all of whom share this four-winged structure.
Bees’ four-wing design allows for many advantages as we’re about to find out.
Bees Have Two Sets of Wings that Work in Tandem
Bees possess a set of large forewings and a set of smaller hindwings with both sets working together to enable efficient flight and the performance of other bee tasks I’ll tell you about later.
Having four wings provides more lift and stability for bees, and beyond this, their wings are especially interesting because of the way they work together.
This unique design gives bees many advantages: greater power and stability during flight, and better mobility and a lower profile when walking around or wriggling through the tight warrens of the hive.
The Forewings are Larger and in Front
On any bee, you’ll find a pair of larger wings known as the forewings positioned at the front of its body.
These wings are more pronounced and visible than the hindwings, and are mainly responsible for the bee’s flight.
Their large size allows for increased lift and stability during flight, enabling them to carry pollen and nectar, which often weighs more than they do!
The forewings also play a crucial role during communication and other chores.
The Hindwings are Smaller and to the Rear
Every bee also has a set of smaller wings known as the hindwings, located towards the rear of their bodies.
When bees are not in flight, these hindwings rest beneath the larger forewings and are quite tough to see.
This unique arrangement provides aerodynamic and mobility advantages, allowing bees to remain stable at any speed and even while hovering.
The hindwings play a critical role too for sharp maneuvers during flight.
Together with the forewings, they allow a bee to perform complex tasks like hovering near flowers and precisely landing on different surfaces without crashing (like many beetles do).
Despite their much smaller size, the hindwings are an integral part of the bee’s impressive flight capabilities because…
The Wings on Either Side Clip Together When a Bee is in Flight
What I think is the most fascinating aspect of bee anatomy is the way their wings function during flight.
The forewings and hindwings on either side of a bee’s body have a unique ability to clip together in flight, forming a single large wing surface that can act as one wing.
This incredible mechanism is made possible by a row of tiny hooks on the mating edges of the wing called humuli, which attach to corresponding recesses.
The process of clipping and unclipping happens seamlessly as a bee takes off and lands.
And once the bee lands, the wings unclip, allowing the hindwings to “stow” beneath the forewings for protection and greater maneuverability on the ground as mentioned. Remarkable!
It is this tendency to clip together which makes it look like bees have only two, large wings.
Bees Have a Top Aerial Speed of More than 20 MPH
Bees aren’t just industrious workers; they are also impressively fast fliers!
Despite their tiny size, some bees can reach top aerial speeds in excess of 20 MPH, and some bees are thought to be capable of topping 30 MPH in ideal conditions.
This speed, however, is influenced by several factors… The energy levels of the insect play a major role as bees need sufficient energy to maintain their high flying speeds.
The weather also greatly impacts its flight, with optimal, calm conditions allowing for faster flights.
Additionally, what the bee is carrying affects its speed: When loaded with pollen or nectar, a bee will naturally fly slower due to the extra weight.
Because of their range and speed, this makes bees highly efficient pollinators.
Bees Can’t Flap Their Wings When they are Chilled
Bees are ectothermic creatures, meaning their body temperature is largely influenced by the external environment.
Consequently, when the temperature drops, bees can become chilled and their ability to flap their wings is compromised or even halted.
Have you ever seen a bee crawling around early in the morning or after an evening cold snap? That’s why!
To counteract this, bees have a unique response; they rest and shiver to generate heat and elevate their body temperature.
This shivering involves rapid contractions of their flight muscles without wing movement, essentially a bee’s version of jogging in place or rubbing its arms to warm up.
In some cases, bees may also wait in the sun on a warm spot, using its bountiful, radiant heat to surely raise their body temperature until they regain their ability to fly.
Bees Use Their Wings for a Lot More than Flight
Though flight is the most obvious and important use of a bee’s wings, these surprisingly versatile appendages actually serve many other crucial purposes.
Bees utilize their wings to ventilate their nests, circulating air to maintain a consistent internal temperature ideal for life in the colony. Literally they act like living fans!
They also use their wings to process honey by fanning it to reduce moisture levels, a crucial step in transforming nectar into the thick, sweet substance we all know and love…
Additionally, bees use their wings for communication by distributing pheromones (their own and the queen’s) throughout the hive along with “dances” to directly impart instructions to each other.
In response to invasive threats they cannot sting to death, like hornets, bees will cluster around the invader and vibrate their wing muscles together to generate heat.
This process, called balling, actually cooks the intruder to death!
Bees Cannot Regrow Their Wings
An unfortunate reality for bees is that they have no capacity to regrow their wings, despite how important they are.
Over time, a bee’s wings can become old and worn from the constant demands of flight and other functions.
They may become tattered or even broken due to encounters with predators, harsh weather conditions, or simply the rigors of daily hive activities.
In some cases, their wings might be severed due to accidents within their environment.
Once damaged to a certain extent they become useless, and a bee’s wings cannot be regenerated or repaired.
This is a sad but significant event in a bee’s life, as it effectively grounds them, making it impossible for them to fulfill their roles within the hive or gather food efficiently.
So despite their resilience and adaptability, bees are absolutely dependent on the health of their wings for survival.
Tom has lived and worked on farms and homesteads from the Carolinas to Kentucky and beyond. He is passionate about helping people prepare for tough times by embracing lifestyles of self-sufficiency.