How do bees build honeycomb?

Love that question, reader Buzz, even more than your highly creative “bee week” alias! Bee lovers have puzzled over that for millennia. How is it that such simple creatures can produce structures as architecturally complex as honeycomb, with its perfect rows of hexagonal cells? They must be geniuses, every one of them a Buckminster Fuller in miniature!

While it’s fun to think of bee hives as intelligent — complex structural-functionalist minds — the reality of honeycomb construction is really pretty simple. If you’ve ever seen any honeycomb on a hive frame, the cell walls on the outsides of comb masses are rounded. Which means the natural shape of a honey comb cell is round, not hexagonal. Bees build individual cells in a cylindrical shape using their bodies as a measure: head-to-stinger for the length of the cell, and their heads for the width.

They scrape off flakes of wax from their abdomens, chew it up to soften it, then apply it in layers of a startlingly uniform thickness, around and around until the cell is finished. Once it’s complete natural physical forces take over and steadily press the soft wax cylinder into a hexagon. How does this happen? Well if you’ve ever put several eggs yolks into a small bowl you’ve noticed how they take on geometric shapes when they’re pressed together (as they seek the most efficient possible shapes). Physics is cool.

What forces within the hive act on the hive walls? Gravity mostly, since the cells get heavy as they fill up with brood, pollen and honey and the weight from above presses down on the cells below (comb slopes gently downward on hive frames for the same reason). All the bees’ tromping around on the cells probably also has an effect. Of course all this is to take nothing away from the genius of the bee, mind you. As a guy with a philosophy degree I’ll never fully rule out the idea of the complex structural-functionalist mind. It’s just too appealing. Still, nice to know that even in the bee world some things just take care of themselves.

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