But how high off the ground can they fly? Is there an altitude at which their wings will stop working, and they’ll drop out of the sky? Let’s find out.
At what altitude can bees fly?
Flying at a high altitude is a feat that’s incredibly difficult for most animals and insects to accomplish. Why? For two reasons (actually there are three but I’ll discuss the third one a bit later):
- The air becomes thinner at higher altitudes
- There is less oxygen available to breathe
Now, bees don’t breathe like us humans do – air enters through tiny holes on their bodies rather than through their mouth or nose… and they don’t have lungs – but they still need to breathe oxygen to survive.
They also need dense air to fly. Air with low density makes it harder for their wings to generate enough lift to offset their bodyweight and propel them upwards. A bee can flap its wings as hard as it wants, but if the air is too thin, it won’t be able to fly.
However, despite these two significant challenges, bees are actually capable of flying at higher altitudes than most insects and animals. In fact, Himalayan giant honey bees (Apis laboriosa), which are the largest species of honey bee in the world, can survive at altitudes that would literally make most people’s heads spin.
These giant bees typically build their nests between 2,500 and 3,000 meters (8,200 – 9800 feet) above sea level. They fly even higher to find food, traveling up to 4,100 meters (13,500 feet) above sea level to forage for pollen and nectar. Even though the air is thinner and there is less oxygen where they live, these bees are able to fly around without any trouble at all.
Alpine Bumble Bees Can Fly Up To 9,000 Meters High (But There’s A Catch)
Other species of bees have been proven to sustain flight at high altitudes, too. Bumble bees in the Himalayas, despite being characterized for their large body and small wings, are powerful flyers who can reach thousands of meters above sea level.
Photo attribution: Arnstein Staverløkk/Norsk institutt for naturforskning, CC BY 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
One study simulated high altitude by collecting six male bumble bees at 4,000 meters above sea level (13,100 feet), then putting them into a chamber and sucking out all the air to simulate high altitude. They found that alpine bumble bees are comfortable flying at heights of 8,000 meters (26,000 feet).
The scientists also replicated the harsh conditions of 9,000 meters (29,5000 feet) off the ground, and two of the six bees were still able to fly. That’s the equivalent of flying over Mt Everest!
Cold Temperatures Stop Bees From Flying High Off The Ground
Besides air density and oxygen levels, there’s a third factor that prevents many animals and insects (including bees) from flying high in the air – temperature.
This is because temperatures at high altitudes are usually much colder than those at sea level. This is something that was not taken into account during the study of alpine bumble bees (during the simulation, air temperatures were maintained between 21 – 33 °C, or (70 – 91°F)).
Cold temperatures also affect a bee’s ability to fly. For a bee to take off and maintain flight, it needs to vibrate its wings very quickly… and to vibrate its wings fast enough, its thorax needs to be able to maintain a relatively high temperature.
This is something that becomes exceedingly difficult when temperatures are very cold. It’s why most bees will stop flying in winter when temperatures drop below about 10°C (50°F). It’s also why bees can’t actually fly over Mt Everest, because at the peak it’s freezing cold.
In fact, the recorded temperatures on Mt Everest are typically -10°C, or 14°F in the summer months! Much too cold for a bee to fly around in. So the temperature is actually the biggest barrier to a bee flying super high off the ground.
How high off the ground do bees Actually fly?
There’s a big difference between how high bees can fly off the ground, and how high they actually fly off the ground. This is because they never have a good reason to fly that high into the air.
All bees nest relatively close to the ground, and they forage for food that literally grows out of the ground. Bees will fly over obstacles that get in their way, but there aren’t many obstacles high enough to test them.
If a bee comes across a high object like a skyscraper, they will simply fly around it. If a bee encounters an object that is both high and wide, such as a mountain, they will likely change direction, or fly as far as they need to in order to find food, before turning back.
So most bees will never fly more than 100 meters (330 feet) in the air. Instead, they’ll stay happily close to the ground and go about their business.
Studies show that, if the temperature isn’t a factor, bees can fly up to 9,000 meters (29,5000 feet) in the air. However, in reality, bees never fly this high.
That’s because firstly, they have no need to, and secondly, because actual temperatures at this height would be too cold for a bee’s wings to function. So bees will instead stay close to the ground where their food and nests are located.