The Loh Down On Science

These insects are architectural prodi-bees!

Karihaloo et al., J. Royal Soc. Interface, 2013

It’s time to blow the lid off of beehives.

This is Sandra Tsing Loh with the Loh Down on Science.

You've seen a honeycomb.  It's a masterpiece of hexagonal cells.  But how do bees make these sophisticated shapes? 

Enter Bhushan Karihaloo from Cardiff University.  He spooked bees out of a hive under construction and peeked inside.  And … hey!  Viewed from above, the cells formed … circles, not hexagons! What gives?

See, honeybees construct those cells from wax glands on their bellies. They chew mouthfuls of the stuff until it's the consistency of taffy, then shape it into a waxy, tube-shaped cubicle. A tube-icle, if you will.

After they've stacked up a bunch of these tubi-cubi-cells, physics takes over.  Picture a stack of pipes at Home Depot—the tubes' rounded edges don't dovetail.  There are little spaces among them.  As workers' hot bodies heat the stack, each curved wall gets gooey, buckling into the empty spaces.  And because each cell has six neighbors, it forms six angles and six flat sides.  Hello, hexagon!

That’s what happens when you get a bee in geometry.  They make A-plus work!  Sorry.

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The Loh Down on Science is produced by LDOS Media Lab, in partnership with the University of California, Irvine, and 89.3 KPCC. And made possible by the generous support of the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.


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