Can a honeybee cause a sonic boom if it travels fast enough?

Sure it can — but sadly, the bee isn’t likely to survive the experience…

By Paulo Lozano and Thomas Chiasson

Anything moving faster than the speed of sound (about 770 miles per hour) can create a sonic boom, including bullets, bullwhips — and yes, really fast bees. A honeybee would definitely cause a sonic boom if it was moving fast enough, but the question is: can it move fast enough?

Now, we’re engineers, not beekeepers, but we’ve heard a bee’s top speed is about 15 miles per hour. That may look fast for such a little guy, but it’s not — and he’s not alone. The fastest people can reach speeds only twice as high as the bee’s. Even the fastest animal on the planet, the peregrine falcon, can only get up to 200 miles per hour, far slower than the 770 miles per hour needed to create a sonic boom.

So what would happen if we could somehow get a honeybee to move that fast? Well, the bee would probably not survive. When something is moving that fast, all the wind around it pushes back on it and makes it heat up a lot (this is what destroyed the Space Shuttle Columbia back in 2003). For the sake of our honeybee, we would only want him to be sonic-booming for a split second, and we would want to protect him. Maybe we could invent a metal bee-suit, and dip him in something that would keep him cool as he picks up speed…

So let’s do it — we’ve got our honeybee, he’s wearing his bee-suit and he’s soaked in something nice and cool, and we’ve tied him to the end of a bullwhip for the first supersonic bee flight… Ready to hear the sonic boom? Unfortunately, our sonic bee will make more of a “crack” than a “boom.” He’s just a little bee after all, and although technically speaking, he’ll cause a sonic boom if he goes fast enough, it’s going to be a smaller, quieter sonic boom than what planes and space shuttles make. 

Thanks to 10-year-old Reno Colburn from Big Rock, IL, for this question.

Posted: April 5, 2011

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