How bees make hexagonal honeycombs
Volodymyr_Burdiak_honey_shutterstock
Image: Volodymyr Burdiak/Shutterstock

As much as we may want to imagine Maya the Bee and friends using myriad measuring equipment to make the perfect honeycomb, these ‘winged architects’ create these structures mostly by chance.

According to a study published in the journal Interface, the holes in honeycomb actually start as circles, not hexagons. But soon all the heat that the worker bees produce starts melting the waxy substance used to build the comb.

As Discover reports, the heat makes the wax creep along the network between the holes and when it hardens again, it does it in the most ‘energetically favourable configuration,' i.e. the hexagonal pattern that honeycomb is famous for.

“We report that the cells in a natural honeybee comb have a circular shape at 'birth' but quickly transform into the familiar rounded hexagonal shape, while the comb is being built,” wrote the researchers in their paper. 

A 2012 study suggested that the wax reaches a temperature between 33.6 and 37.6 degrees Celsius when the bees are working, which may be just enough for bees to manipulate this material. But in this study, the researchers found that the wax reaches a temperature of 45 degrees Celsius and is then "pulled into hexagonal cells by surface tension at the junctions where three walls meet," explained the researchers.

Lead researcher, physicist Bhushan Karihaloo said: "We cannot... ignore, nor can we not marvel at the role played by the bees in this process by heating, kneading and thinning the wax exactly where needed."

Watch this Ted-Ed video and discover more about bees and their perfect hexagons:

Source: Discover and Ted-Ed