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How honey bees make hexagons

For as long as mankind has pursued honey bees, he has been fascinated by the shape of comb cells. Since that first discovery, many types of intelligence have been ascribed to honey bees that might result in their extraordinary ability to build perfect hexagons. If you ever tried to draw a regular hexagon, one with equal sides and equal angles, you know how difficult it can be.

But the most plausible theory is that honey bees do not actually build hexagons. Instead, they build wax cylinders that conform to the shape of their bodies. They take the secreted wax flakes, soften them with their mandibles, and assemble them in a tube around themselves. For worker cells, they build a size that just fits: small bees build small cells, and larger bees build larger cells.

The flattened areas result where two cells touch each other. The most obvious example can be seen in soap bubbles. Wherever two bubbles touch, a flat wall is formed. Imagine building row after row of tightly packed cylinders. If you warmed them up so the walls flowed like liquid, they would develop flat sides wherever they touched, just like soap bubbles.

Researchers now believe that as the cells are constructed they are warmed by the bees’ bodies which causes the common sides to flow together and form a flat wall. Because they are closely packed, the rows form a series of hexagons that we recognize as honeycomb.

In their paper, “Honeybee combs: how the circular cells transform into rounded hexagons” (2013), B. L. Karihaloo, K. Zhang, J. Wang report that the transition from round sides to flat can happen in just seconds, depending on the temperature of the wax.

Some of the most compelling evidence for this theory can be found not in the perfectly-shaped cells but in the imperfect ones. For example, wherever the cells are not so tightly packed, such as at the intersection of worker cells and drone cells, you can see many other shapes. Four- or five-sided cells are not uncommon in this area as are cells with random shapes and cells stretched in odd ways in order to meet another cell.

Also telling are the shapes of supersedure cells and swarm cells. Since queen cells are built separately and do not touch other cells, they remain cylindrical. Even queen cells that are started on hexagonal foundation soon depart from the embossed shape and become cylindrical.

In nature, honey bees are not the only insect to build hexagonal nests. Some of their kin, including various wasps, also build hexagonal cells—proof that the hex shape is not exclusively a honey bee thing.

Rusty
Honey Bee Suite

soap-bubbles stuck together
Where soap bubbles stick together, the intersection is flat. Pixabay photo.
Circular layers of comb filled with brood
Many of the social wasps also build hexagonal cells, such as these aerial yellowjackets. © Rusty Burlew.

 

Comments

Rich
Reply

Rusty,

You explain the mechanism by which honey bee cells become hexagons. When mud drys, it produces a matrix of hexagons too. The mud has little structure for this to happen, and it is not a surprise that nature chooses a crack pattern where the broken fragments of soil fit, but why is it the hexagon as opposed to a random crack pattern or a bunch of triangles?

Rusty
Reply

Rich,

I have no idea, but I’ve seen really cool examples of it. Does anyone know?

Tim Steele
Reply

I’m not sure I believe their explanation. I’ve seen lots of half-formed hexagons, only a millimeter or less deep, just an outline, really, on the inner cover or sides of the hive. It seems to me they start out with a hexagon pattern. I always assumed it was due to the shape of their wax glands. I did not realize this was not understood well.

But maybe I just saw what I wanted to see. Nice blog post! Packages coming soon!

Rusty
Reply

Tim,

I think you make an excellent point. I’m going to have to look at those start-up patterns more carefully, but I think I’ve noticed the hex there are well. The plot thickens. Wax scales, though, are just sort of irregular ovals without much shape at all.

richard anstis
Reply

Fascinating. I can feel another obsession coming on.

Paul Packbier
Reply

I, seriously, learn something new almost every time you publish a new article! Thanks for the transfer of knowledge.

Binish sofi
Reply

Master piece of engineering.

Rusty
Reply

Tim,

I wonder how deep a cell has to be before it is influenced by neighboring cells?

Mike Ohlmann
Reply

The melted wax theory sounds plausible enough. But are wasp building paper nests in hexagonal shapes in both horizontal positions susceptible to similar influences?

Rusty
Reply

Mike,

I don’t know. I assume that the wood fibers take on a liquid-like form when they are combined with wasp saliva, so it’s possible the material flows. It’s a good question.

WestPark
Reply

Thanks for the fascinating article. So, what’s the current thinking on how bees and wasps **know** how to make hexagons? Is it something they simply learn from one another, or is it inherent knowledge ????

Rusty
Reply

I assume it’s encoded in their DNA. Bees that have never seen it done, do it just fine.

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