Buzzing Around – the Physics of Bee Flight

PDF version downloadable here

Age group 5th– 6th class

Total time 1-1.5hrs

Outline: To learn about the importance of bees, the science of flying, and how to help protect them

Links to Primary Curriculum Key Learning points
The child should be enabled to 
– to appreciate that gravity is a force (Science:  Forces) 
– become aware that objects have weight because of the pull of gravity (Science:  Forces) 
– explore and experiment with the properties and characteristics of materials in making structures (Area: Arts Education, Visual Arts)
This activity will cover
– the everyday importance and the science of bees
– The basic physics of flight

Why we love bees

Bees are among the earth’s hardest working creatures, and are one of the most important plant pollinators. This means they help plants reproduce, and help us to produce many of our favourite fruits and vegetables.

Here at the SOPhia project, we have our very own beehive since last spring 2019 and are learning so much from our new friends. Check out more amazing bee science here. You can check out how we built our hive and monitoring systems at our Beehive Blog.

The All Ireland Pollinator Plan has lots of resources explaining why bees are so important and why we all need to take action to protect them. Watch their video below to start your journey into the fascinating world of bees and let’s make them welcome in our gardens.

There’s lots of science and physics behind the way bees go about their activities, from the electric charge sensors bees use to decide if flowers are worth visiting, to their super bee vision which senses polarized light helping them navigate where ever they need to go.

Notes for parents/carers and teachers 

This activity can be carried out at home by a child/small group of children and an adult, by varying the types of age-appropriate tasks. The materials are available at home or easily obtainable. The activity is written out with instructions directed to the child’s parent/carer. Feel free to adapt this activity as appropriate.

Did you know?

A hardworking forager bee may live just three weeks and travel 800Km. 

Each bee produces about a 1/12th of a teaspoon of honey in its lifetime, so it takes around 1000 bees to produce your jar of honey. 

Male bees are called drones and make up only about 15 percent of the population of a bee colony. So female bees rule the beehive! 

What you need 

Printing paper, newspaper, light card, ruler, pencil, colours, string, chalk

1. What do you think of bees?

Spark the children’s curiosity with the following questions:

Do you know why bees buzz? How do you think they fly? Wanna find out?

A bee’s wings beat very fast (about 230 beats per second!), and this makes wind vibrations that we hear as buzzes. The larger the bee, the slower the wingbeat and the lower the pitch of the resulting buzz. Let’s experiment to find out more about flying.

2. Let’s make something fly

We’ve probably all made a paper airplane at some point. Now it’s time to experiment and see what makes them fly better and farther. Remember to observe how different wings work.

  1. Go to the Foldnfly website for with folding instructions for making a  the basic paper plane, called a dart design.
  2. Follow the instructions to make a basic dart paper plane. Feel free to decorate your plane but be careful not to damage the folds and point!
  3. Go to a large open area and mark a line on the ground with string/chalk/stones etc. This will be the starting line from which you will fly the paper airplane.
  4. Place your toe on the line you prepared and throw the paper airplane. How far does it fly?
  5. Throw the plane at least four more times. Each time before you throw the plane, make sure it is still in good condition (that the folds and points are still sharp). When you throw it, place your toe on the line and try to throw the plane as similarly as possible, including holding it at the same spot. Did it travel the same distance each time? Why or why not?
  6. Make paper airplanes that are different sizes (e.g. use different sized paper) and compare how well they fly. Do bigger planes fly further?  
  7. Try making paper planes out of different types of paper, such as printer paper, light card, and newspaper. Use the same design for each. Does one type of paper work better? Which is the worst paper for these paper airplanes?
  8. Try other paper airplane designs with different wing shapes and see what happens. 

If you get really hooked, try out this record holding  paper airplane design

3. The Science behind flying

Prompt them with some of these questions. You can then read the full explanation to them below, or try it in your own words.

Key questions 

What force makes the paper airplane fly across the open space? (Think about what you did to make the plane fly)

Do you know why the plane goes down after a short while? What is the name of that force? (Hint: What keeps our feet on the ground?)

What might happen if you tried to fly your paper airplane in a windy place?

Explanation 

A paper airplane is able to fly because of Newton’s third Law of Motion – to every action there is an equal but opposite reaction. When you throw the paper airplane into the air (giving it a thrust force), the air pushes off the underside of its wings, and the air is deflected downward. This creates an equal but opposite force that pushes the paper airplane up, which is called lift.  The weight of the paper plane is the force of gravity acting against the lift. There is one more force acting on the plane. This is the body of the plane rubbing against the air particles, slowing it down. It’s called the drag force. When it’s windy, it can cause more drag on your plane, or speed it up if it’s in the same direction as your plane is moving.

The following video from the Bristol Science Centre explains these four forces, and some more of the physics behind flying if you’d like the challenge!

How did your different wing sizes affect your paper airplane? See if you observed something similar to the science. A lightweight plane with large wings glides well but travels slowly, while heavier planes with smaller wings travel more quickly and cover larger distances. What did you observe with your different plane designs? How far did they fly? How steady did they fly?

  4. How do bees fly?

We’ve looked at the basics of how your paper airplane flies. So do bees do the same thing?

A bee’s wings must move about very fast to create enough force upwards (lift) to balance against the bee’s body weight downward (gravity force) to be able to lift off the ground and fly.  That’s basically just like a paper airplane. However, bees have wings that can move in many directions so they have a very cool flapping motion which you can try out yourself.

Check out this video where bee flight is explained.

How to do the Bee flap:  

Take your arm and put it out to your side, parallel to the ground with your palm facing down. Now sweep your arm forward. When you reach in front of you, pull your thumb up, so that you flip your arm over and your palm is upwards. Now, with your palm up, sweep your arm back. When you reach behind you, flip your hand over again, palm down for the forward stroke. Repeat. If you gave your hand a slight tilt (so that it’s not completely parallel to the ground), you’d be doing something similar to a bug flap. (source: https://www.livescience.com/33075-how-bees-fly.html) 

Watch bees flying in ultra slow motion to see how they do the bee flap.

5. Bees need our help

We’ve just learned about the fabulous physics behind the flight of bees. If that gave you a good buzz, we’d love you to continue learning about bees, how they help to grow our food, and why they are in danger from pesticides, loss of habitat, and what we can do to help.

Take action at home

We can all help to make our gardens a welcome place for bees. We can plant wild flowers, mow our lawns less, use less chemicals. For lots more ideas check out the All-Ireland Pollinator Plan website.

6. What did you like, what did you learn?

Adults and kids are both welcome to answer.

What did you most like/least like about this activity? 

What did you learn about bees, flying and forces? 

Leave a comment below on how you liked this activity, or let us know via twitter @SophiaPhysics

Sources and Extra Resources 

The fascinating world of bees

15 Fascinating Honey Bee Facts 

Science Buddies – Making Paper Airplanes

Why do bees buzz?

Find out some of the differences between Bumblebees and Honeybees, and how solitary bees get this name… 

2 Comments

    • Hi Deirdre,
      We did stick up a PDF version some days later. Sorry it took a little longer than anticipated. It’s linked at the top and downloadable, and then printable. Let us know how you liked the activity in general. More activities coming soon!
      thanks!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


*