Honeycombs’ Hexagons a Product of Simple Physics

Few things are as charismatic as honeybees’ hexagonal honeycombs. Instantly recognizable, the pattern is striking in both its efficiency—the six walls use the least amount wax to divide a space—and its usefulness—it’s found in everything from the 747 airliner to geodesic domes. For a long time, scientists couldn’t figure out whether honeybees or simple physics were responsible for the design. But new research suggests that physics plays a significant role.

Here’s Phillip Ball, writing for Nature:

Engineer Bhushan Karihaloo at the University of Cardiff, UK, and his co-workers say that bees simply make cells that are circular in cross section and are packed together like a layer of bubbles. According to their research, which appears in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface, the wax, softened by the heat of the bees’ bodies, then gets pulled into hexagonal cells by surface tension at the junctions where three walls meet.

Honeycomb's hexagonal pattern is largely the result of physical processes.

The researchers stopped the bees midway through their comb-making process and found the holes between the still-warm wax partitions were circular instead of hexagonal. Cells that were further along in the process appeared more familiar.

It’s not all physics though—honeybees still expertly place the wax and warm it with their bodies and movements, allowing it to flow into those near-perfect hexagons.

How do honeybees tell each other where to find the nectar and pollen that keeps their hive going? The waggle dance, of course.