Updated: Oct 6
Bees’ hexagonal honeycomb pattern is one of the most distinctive patterns in the animal kingdom. Humans have taken inspiration from the bees and adopted the hexagonal pattern in our own technological pursuits, like the creation of origami-inspired self-folding paper which can mold itself into the distinctive honeycomb shape. The honeycomb structure is unique because it provides optimal insulation within the hexagonal cells, is the most shock absorbent shape, and lends itself to being materially efficient as well. This is great for the bees since it allows them to maximize the amount of honey they can create with the least amount of wax spent. Because of the benefits of this geometry, humans have engineered the honeycomb shape to be used across a wide variety of disciplines for our own benefit.
We as humans are capable of replicating the pattern that honeybees have crafted over centuries of evolution, but in studying the applications of the honeycomb pattern, scientists were left to wonder how the bees have perfected this shape over their evolution, and what their building technique might be.
Studying honeycomb formation has not been a straightforward process for scientists over the last several centuries since it is nearly impossible to observe the creation of honeycomb without disturbing the bees’ process. It has been well documented that bees begin their comb creation process with cylindrical cells, and the formation of the hexagons can be explained by surface tension between each cell which helps to mold the cells into their distinct and efficient shape. However, the question remained of how the bees were able to build each cell into a uniform size in order for this surface tension mechanism to work. One idea was that the bees use their body parts as a measuring tool while they work to maintain consistency between cells. To test this, scientists compared the small variability in cylinder shape to the variation in the bee’s body parts - specifically their hind legs and antennae. They determined that it is possible that the bees could be using their body parts as rulers to build their honeycomb.
Bees are communal animals, so hundreds of individual bees follow distinct rules and patterns in order to build their honeycomb. Collectively, they are able to assemble impressively uniform and efficient honeycomb patterns by using their bodies as rulers. The honeycomb pattern is not only a beautiful part of nature, but also an efficient shape which has been adopted by industries in a variety of applications for its material efficiency and strength.
Naritomi, Daichi, et al. “Creation of Origami-Inspired Honeycomb Structure Using Self-Folding Paper.” Materials & Design, vol. 223, 2022, p. 111146., https://doi.org/10.1016/j.matdes.2022.111146.
Nazzi, F. The hexagonal shape of the honeycomb cells depends on the construction behavior of bees. Sci Rep 6, 28341 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1038/srep28341