Why do honeycomb cells have a hexagonal shape

What makes honeycombs hexagonal?

Honey bees build their honeycombs with such an exact geometry that they were previously given a mathematical talent. But it remains a mystery to this day how the exact geometry of the cells comes about. Now Würzburg researchers have discovered the secret of the honeycomb.

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Bees are not ingenious architects, but they use an ingenious building material, namely their own wax. The honeybees' honeycombs are composed of perfectly uniform hexagonal cells. This is where the insects store their food - honey or pollen - and raise their brood. The cell walls are made of wax, which the bees produce in special glands on the abdomen, and are only 70 thousandths of a millimeter thick.

"So far, research into this construction work has mainly brought about knowledge about the sensory organs of bees," says the Würzburg bee researcher Jürgen Tautz. For example, science found that the feelers are important measuring instruments for determining the thickness of the walls, and that their sense of weight helps the bees to align the honeycomb with gravity.

From round to square ...

The Würzburg researchers Christian Pirk and Jürgen Tautz have now clarified this question together with Randall Hepburn and Sarah Radloff from Rhodes University in South Africa: The bees do not build hexagons, but largely round cylinders. While they are working on these blanks, they heat the wax to around 40 degrees Celsius. As a result, it begins to flow and assume the most energetically economical form - that of a hexagon.

“This can be simulated simply by bringing round cylinders made of thin wax into contact with one another and heating them. The regular hexagonal pattern then emerges all by itself, as we find in the honeycomb, ”explains Pirk. The honey bees therefore make use of physical principles. The scientists report on this in the latest edition of the journal “Naturwissenschaften”.

Optical illusion in the honeycomb

The researchers have also cleared up another mistake. If you look at the floor of a cell, it looks as if it was made of three precisely fitted rhombuses. But this is only an optical illusion - the wrong impression comes about because the view through the honeycomb leads to the cells lying on one another, which are arranged offset to the cells on this side. In reality, the bottom of every cell is shaped as a hemisphere from the start, as Pirk says.

(Bavarian Julius Maximilians University of Würzburg, June 30, 2004 - NPO)

June 30, 2004