How Do Insects Fly?

With flying ant day over I was wondering just how they fly so efficiently. I wanted to find out and would like to share the information I found with you.

Insects use their wings to fly. Muscles are used to move thin layers of sclerotin up and down to allow the insect to hover or move around. Some insects have a click mechanism that clicks the wings up and down, giving them greater efficiency and speed.

I found out a lot of information including the incredible speed of some species. If you want to find out more then there is some great information below.

Insects may have one or two pairs of wings and are efficient flyers. Insects us a sequence of muscle actions along with wing movements to keep them in the air.

As the only invertebrate animals that can fly, insects evolved and developed flight a long time before birds, bats, or any other flying animal. The earliest fossils of insects with flight capabilities date back to about 300 million years ago.

Some dragonflies in the Carboniferous period in the late Paleozoic Era were also the largest insects to have lived with a wingspan of over two feet.

There are many species of insects that cannot fly and this is either because they have lost their wings through evolution or never developed them.

Most flying adult insets have developed two pairs of wings. The wings have developed from lateral expansions of the two hind segments of the thorax. The expansions can be seen in some fossils and are called paranota.

Whereas other animals such as bats have evolved from structures that were formerly limbs, insects have not.


The wing is made up of sclerotin. Sclerotin is a flexible but strong substance that also covers the body of the insect making it hard. The wings are made up of two transparent, thin layers.

The two layers of sclerotin look like a single membrane but are strengthened by hollow rods of sclerotin.

These rods are also used as blood vessels during the early stages of development. The true use if to support the thin membrane of the wing, but can also be used to classify and identify the insect.

Prehistoric insects such as mayflies and dragonflies have a network of veins that are close together. More advanced insects such as bees have fewer veins in their wings. The veins are generally thicker nearer the body.

Insects that have two wings are assisted by a pair of small, knobbed rods behind the wings which are called halteres. The halteres are actually hind wings. These vibrate at the same speed as the wings, helping to balance the organs and the insect to control its position in flight.

How Insects Fly

The flight of an insect works in much the same way as any flying animal, but with a twist. Their wings beat up and down but also twist at the base. The twist allows the insect to propel a stream of air not only downwards but also backward, propelling them forward and against the pull of gravity.

Muscles located in the thorax control and power the wings. There are two types of muscles involved which depend on the species of insect; direct or indirect flight muscles.

Some insects such as bees, moths, or flies can control their flight well. These types of insects use indirect flight muscles. They have two pairs of muscles that work vertically and longitudinally.

The muscles are not attached to the wings, making them indirect. The muscles are attached to the thorax. The wing is swung upwards by the vertical muscles contracting, pulling the thorax and the base of the wing down. The wing then swings down when the vertical muscles relax.

Direct flight muscles are different as the wing is attached to the muscle. Older species of insects such as dragonflies and grasshoppers use direct flight muscles. By contracting their inner muscles, the wing swings up, while contracting the outer muscles pulls the wing down.

Many insects are able to use their wings independently which helps them to maneuver and turn. Dragonflies can use their hind wings and fore wings independently, but the wings of bumblebees have small hooks along the forewings which latch onto the hind wings.

Click Mechanism

Insects have various other muscles that they use when flying to improve the efficiency and to aid control.

The click mechanism found in flies and some other insects. The wings are held up or down by small catches that hold the wings in their positions. The catches are not released until the indirect flight muscles have built up enough tension. This causes the wings to snap up and down, giving the insect increased efficiency and speed.

Insects that use the click mechanism have a high wing-beat frequency. While some flies can beat their wings up to 200 times per second, midges can beat theirs as many as 1000 times per second. Larger species of dragonfly beat their wings as low as 20 times per second but are still excellent fliers.

You may have heard that for its wing size and weight that bees shouldn’t be able to fly and that would be correct if it didn’t use the click mechanism.


Insects do not fly in a straight line so attempts to measure their speed are difficult. You may not think of insects as fast but some of them are.

Although bees and butterflies average up to 15 km/h, horseflies and dragonflies can reach speeds of almost 60 km/h although this is generally over short distances.


Insects can use a lot of energy flying and they need to be able to fuel their flight. Insects either store energy as carbohydrates or fat.

Although efficient, the flight can take up a lot of energy. Locusts lose one percent of its total body weight for every hour of continuous flight. This isn’t as much as blowflies though. Blowflies can lose almost a third of their body weight in an hour of flight.

Insects that make migratory journeys usually use stores of fat rather than carbohydrates to fuel their flight. Insects that migrate generally migrate in the same direction every year.

Although migrations are generally long-distance, not all insects travel long distances to migrate. Aphids may travel long distances by being taken up by thermal currents. Once they reach a suitable heigh, strong winds may carry them hundreds of miles. This type of flight doesn’t use much energy.

Bryan Harding

Bryan has spent his whole life around animals. While loving all animals, Bryan is especially fond of mammals and has studied and worked with them around the world. Not only does Bryan share his knowledge and experience with our readers, but he also serves as owner, editor, and publisher of North American Mammals.

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