The Structure of a Bee Wing and How It Affects Flight (BioE Spr2015)

How can bees fly? One of my favorite quips is that scientists long ago succeeded in determining that bees cannot fly. Indeed, I always loved the way bees fly, like they are dangling a great mass beneath frantically flapping wings.

We set out to explore the question: how does the structure of a bee’s wing lend itself to helping a bee defy 20th century physicists? After observing a limping bee with a recently removed stinger, we decided to put it out of its misery and observe one wing under the Foldscope.

Bee Wing

Under the regular magnification lens,we observed three key features:


(1) The wing is divided into ~12 segments. The borders (seen in brown in the images) appears to be made of some sort of microtubule. This likely adds strength and stability to the otherwise very light and fragile wing. It is possible that these structures also impact the motion of the wing, since due to its rigidity, it likely moves the wing in a predictable way. Without these structures, the wings could just flap in any direction and would likely be less efficient in carrying the bee’s weight.


(2) The segment itself is very translucent, suggesting that it is made of thinner or more delicate material. We thought this portion might allow the wings to work efficiently and for the wing to be as light as possible to avoid unnecessary weight. It is also probably more sensitive than the microtubules to the differences in air pressure that make flight possible.


(3) The most unexpected structure we found were little pin-shaped specks spaced evenly within the translucent part of each segment. These “pins” are brown in color, and very opaque. We predict that the pins add stability to the translucent regions of the wing. It is possible that the way they are shaped and spaced maximizes surface area while minimizing mass, which would provide maximum strength at minimal additional weight. Structural strength throughout the wing explains how bees can fly through a lot of less-than-ideal conditions.

As a followup, it would be neat to study the pinheads and find out some physiological reason why they are shaped and spaced the way they are. This might lead us to a more detailed explanation of what they do.


Valerie Chen and Wesley Dixon



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