A hexagon is a six-sided polygon whose sides are equal in measurement. Geometrically speaking, in nature it is as the least wasteful shape. Its compressive shape also makes it one of the strongest naturally occurring geometric structures on the planet. It’s little wonder then that one of natures great builders (bees) would use this shape to form the foundation of their hives.
How a bee constructs a hexagonal honey comb
- Glands on the lower part of their abdomen will then produce tiny wax flakes, which are collected and chewed on by other bees.
- Worker bees further use their body as a tool to make circles in the wax. As they are making circles, their body heat melts the wax which slowly slips along the network between circles as it changes into hexagon shape.
- Under energetic favorable configuration, the wax will then harden into rounded hexagonal patterns on the honeycomb.
Why the Hexagonal Shape?
Are you still wondering why this shape? Well, below are reasons why bees make hexagons on their honeycombs;
- A partition with equal-sized cells is created by the hexagonal-shaped tiles. This makes the total perimeter of the cells to be minimized. Thus, least materials are used by worker bees, due to the hexagonal structure that creates a network of cells within a given volume.
- Hexagonal shapes have closed dimensions that are able to support queen cells, which are irregular and lumpy in shape.
- Constructing their honeycomb into hexagon shapes, save them a lot of time and energy, that is used in prime jobs like collecting and transporting pollen and nectar.
- Bees prefer to make hexagon shapes because it is stronger and compact. It is able to store large quantities of their byproducts like honey.
- The hexagonal shape makes the hive flexible. This means it can be transported and fit anywhere.
Facts about Bee’s Hexagons
- From birth, each individual bee knows how to make a hexagon comb.
- Compared to other bee species, only the honey bee, ‘Apis mellifera’ can make perfect hexagonal combs. Others make hexagon shapes that are not perfectly rounded on the edges and others just make round combs.
- Wax temperature is between 33.6⁰ and 37⁰, during the making of hexagons. Wax is assumed to melt at these temperatures. Thus, liquid wax initiates the construction of the comb.
- Charles Darwin and ancient Greeks considered the bee’s constructed hexagons as a masterpiece of art in engineering. This is because it perfectly economizes labor and wax.
- It is believed that hexagons on the honeycomb symbolize communication, balance, perfection, union, equality and integration.
- Hexagons are the honey bee-cells openings consisting of prismatic vessels.
- Hexagons are formed within 6 seconds from circular cells, if they are adequately warmed and within 36 seconds if partially warmed.
The Bee Hexagon Theorem
Two claims must be established to the transmission view in order for this to be a counterexample. The first view claims the hexagons on the honeycomb is a genuine MES (A manufacturing execution system). Biologists consider this as the best explanation to why cells are built in the shape of hexagons by honey bees whereas mathematicians use it as nontrivial information.
Secondly, the core of the hexagons is a mathematical result and is not explanatory. It only corresponds to the “honeycomb theorem”, which states that any partition of the plane into sections of equal area has a perimeter at least that of the regular hexagonal honeycomb tiling. It is a major challenge proving the honeycomb theorem, because if a single unit area with a minimum perimeter was to be enclosed, then the most favorable shape will not be a hexagon but a circle. However, it becomes clear that using circles will not fit the multiple cells together; it will leave gaps between the cells.
Many scientist and laypeople have also been intrigued to explain this theorem. Marcus Terentius Varro, who was one of the early philosophers, suggested that in order for bees to achieve the best economy of materials, they built hexagonal cells. He had compared other polygons and based his observation on the surface and perimeter ratio that hexagons possess.
Varro revealed another suggestion that, a possible construction method might be hinted by the comb’s cell angles correspondence between the numbers of bees’ legs. However, cells are circular when they are built but not hexagonal. Ancient observers had already observed this and easily demonstrated it in their studying of wax combs during early stages of construction.
Rasmus Bartholin suggested that, pressure of each individual bee trying to enlarge each cell automatically resulted into hexagons. Thompson argued that the hexagonal pattern of cells is molded by soft wax as a result of surface tension. The result of this surface tension is formed by three 120˚ angles between convergences of wax walls in a triple junction.
Just recently, Pirk and fellow collaborators studied the wax condensing around an array of rubber bungs to provide support to this hypothesis. A similar conclusion was reached by Karihaloo and coworkers by creating an effect between adjacent cells and surface tension at the triple junction.
Bienefeld and Bauer argued that wax is not efficiently heated up by bees to reach temperatures that form liquid equilibrium, therefore based on the mechanical shaping of the cells, an alternative explanation was proposed.
Factors Influencing the Construction of Hexagons
- Dilemma in Construction Timing
The challenge of building a honeycomb occurs immediately the swarm settles into an empty nest cavity. Construction of honeycombs with hexagons is vital because the colony’s future depend on it, both for storage of large quantities of honey and brood-rearing. They experience construction timing dilemma due to the fact that they have to allocate major resources around the nest. On the other hand, they have to immediately start building plenty of combs, so that temporally unpredictable nectar flows can efficiently be exploited. Honey stores will be depleted if too much combs are constructed, thus survival during winter is threatened. Their dilemma creates an emphasis on the importance of striking the right equilibrium between the energy costs of construction and the opportunity costs of missed nectar flows.
- Dependent Construction Conditions
Honey bees consider various conditions before they start their construction. For example, bees prefer constructing in darkness and in the absence of a queen, building is reduced or excluded. Construction is also inhibited by inadequate pollen nutrition, which interferes with normal production of wax from the glands. Thus, continuous intake of pollen triggers vigorous construction by the bees.
- Favorable Condition-Dependent Strategies
When plenty of storage capacity is already available, bees find it unnecessary to waste energy on storage. They can only achieve this when they use the strategy of balancing the cost of new construction and the benefits. This of course will trigger construction in time by focusing on the amount of empty combs in the nest, thus the storage capacity will be efficient. Another strategy they consider is pursuing the optimal policy that a new comb is only built when fullness of a previous comb exceeds threshold and continuous flow of nectar, to avoid dangers of insufficient storage capacity or wastage of materials.
- Behavioral Mechanisms by Individual Bee
Thousands of worker bees somehow have an individual decision to make if the above factors emerge. Each bee is only limited to local information that surrounds her. Moreover, foragers rarely take part in construction but in the field, only they are able to directly perceive nectar conditions. The comb’s fullness is monitored by the better-placed middle-aged builders; only bees in the 10-20 days of age take part in construction. Potential builders are also able to independently track conditions, so that they can continuously update their encounters with nest mates who are busy with construction.
- Age, Size and Queen Status Effects
Age and size changes of the bees affect the type of comb constructed by a colony. In large colonies, the number of drone cell tends to be higher than in small colonies. Likewise, in the first several weeks of construction, a newly settled swarm on the nest will only make worker cells. A queen’s status will strongly influence a colony’s choice of comb. Much less combs will be built in a queen less colony than in queenright colonies. Queen less colony will instead build combs heavily weighted towards drone cells to increase reproductive fitness in the comb.
- Drone Comb Regulation
Regulation of each drone and worker combs proportions is done in their nests, once a queenright colony grows large enough to build their combs. Contact-mediated regulation is not a role played by the queen, so when bees are deprived of potential cues, they will first require the presence of a drone comb to inhibit further drone comb construction. Even in the absence of a drone brood, drone comb arises itself in inhibition. Thus, construction will only be done depending on how drone combs are regulated, whether the queen is present or not.
Adaptations of the bees in making Hexagons
- Waggle Dancing
Bees make critical decisions like final location of nest sites by performing a waggle dance. Hundreds of scout bee set out from their swarm clusters to search for new nest sites where they can start their construction. They will then communicate their new location to other scouts, when they return to the swarm. A number of different site dances will be performed but after a while only one site will be danced to. Thereafter, an entire swarm will fly to the site. Construction of hexagons will then begin on the suitable nest site.
- Powerful Brain
Although a bee has a brain as tiny as sesame seed, its brain has cognitive features that enable it to make calculations better than even most humans. Its brain also has an incredible memory of things and places. With this powerful brain of theirs, worker bees are able to manipulate melted wax mathematically into perfect hexagonal patterns that can accommodate storage for both honey and brood. While making hexagons, they evaluate the current state of construction and the available space at the same time aligning the combs with gravity.
- Abdominal Glands
You must know by now that bees can’t make hexagons without using wax, right? They have wax glands on the lower part of their abdomen that produce wax between four series of overlapping plates called sterna. They start secreting wax into tiny flakes for 12 days and the gland de-generates it after six days when the construction of hexagons is complete.
- Specialized Mouthparts
Bees have combined mouth parts consisting of both mandibles and a proboscis, used for chewing and sucking. They use the proboscis to suck nectar that will be later on used to make honey, which contributes to the production of wax. Whereas, they use their mandibles (paired teeth) to chew tiny flakes of wax produced from the glands. While chewing, the wax is mixed with saliva to manipulate the remaining wax flakes into hexagonal patterns.
- Exotic Wings
8 Kg of honey does not just grow in their stomach to make the 1 ounce of wax. A Hive of Bees will have to fly 90,000 collective miles to collect nectar from several flowers, to make 1 kg of honey. Of course it is only able to fly this much distance, due to their exotic wings that beat 230 times every second. After collecting nectar they fan it using their wings to stimulate evaporation of water. This continuous fanning of their wings eventually creates a concentrated liquid forming honey. They will later consume it to make 1 ounce of wax for building hexagons.
How bees make hexagons is indeed brilliant! Their way of construction has even been applied in several buildings and objects around the world. This is due the miraculous art of hexagons to conserve space and materials. Although bees have settled with the hexagonal pattern in their hive, research predicts that bees are still learning other methods of conserving even more space.