Why Honey Bees Use Hexagons

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They may be considered a simple insect, but honey bees are actually master builders. Inside the interior of a honey bee nest, we find sheets of honeycomb – with thousands of hexagonal shaped cells. Interestingly, each wax cell may vary just a bit in size but they are all alike in one way – a basic hexagonal shape. Why do bees use hexagons? Join me as we consider- why our bees use this 6-sided shape instead of a simple circle or square

Honey bee shaped comb in hexagon shapes inside a hive.

There are many curiosities inside a beehive. Though we have learned a lot about bee life – we still do not understand everything that they do.

Hexagonal Beeswax Cells

As far as we know, honey bees are not master mathematicians – but maybe they are. They chose to use a a basic shape that is designed as a space-saver.

Yes, it is the hexagon that makes the most efficient use of every bit of space in the hive. When honey bees use hexagons in cell building, there is no wasted space. 

A hexagon is a plane figure with 6 sides, 6 vertices and 6 angles. With a great need for fitting many cells in one place, why do bees choose a hexagon pattern?

  • efficient use of space – the most cells in the smallest area
  • strength and stability
  • ease of construction
Black hexagons and circles on a yellow background.

The Honeycomb Conjecture

A Roman scholar named, Marcus Terentius Varro, theorized that bees use the hexagons because they are the most compact shape.

But, it was Thomas Hales (University of Michigan) who proved The Honeycomb Conjecture with mathematical proof.

In regular beekeeper terminology, this means that the hexagon is the most efficient shape to use in construction of many units (wax cells) on a plane (comb).

Hexagonal shaped cells hold more honey than other shapes. Who knew? Well… the bees did. We figured it out in 1999.

Using hexagons as a pattern for cell building requires less wax to construct the sheets of comb. No wasted space and less perimeter to build. One of the characteristics of honey bees is their determined work ethic. However, they also work smart.

Bee gathering nectar . Diagram of hexagonal shaped cells no wasted areas.

Beeswax Production is Unique

Some insects use materials found in nature to build their nests. Wasps nest are much different from a beehive. Wasps build paper nests. They are only used for one season and are not made of wax.

Bumble bees do a great job of recycling because they use abandoned rodent burrows. They are also not wax builders.

However, the honey bee is unique in their use of nesting materials. Bees make beeswax using special glands found on the underside abdomens of female worker bees. But, this amazing feat does not happen without a cost. 

Producing wax is a very expensive process for a colony. Young adults are the best wax producers and they must consume large amounts of honey to prime the wax glands.

Worker bees cleaning wax cells in hive.

Shaping the Wax

After the wax is secreted, each small piece must be shaped into individual cells and then sheets of honeycomb. In the beginning, the cells look a bit like a circle shape.

But, the workers continue to manipulate the wax until the hexagon shape becomes obvious. This is a labor-intensive undertaking. Making beeswax is much harder than producing honey.

In addition to the wax workers, other bees hang in chains nearby. This is called festooning bees.  Researchers and scientists are not sure why they do this behavior. 

Perhaps they are helping to control the heat in the wax forming region of the hive by forming a net of bees. Or maybe, they are truly aiding in comb construction.

Honey bees holding on to each other to accomplish a task.

Hexagon Shapes are Strong

Hexagonal structures are found throughout nature. But, it is the honey bee colony that is credited for making the best use of the hexagonal pattern through construction of thousands of useful units for the hive.

By design, the hexagon shape is strong – distributing weight throughout the cells walls. This makes for a strong structure that can bear a lot of weight.

The angled walls of a beeswax cell transfer some of the weight and pressure to neighboring cells. All of this works together to produce a stable, strong structure for the interior of the beehive.

FAQs

Do bees intentionally build hexagon shaped cells?

Scientist do not really know how bees choose the hexagon shape. We do know that they use heat from their bodies to melt and shape wax circles into hexagon shapes.

Why do honey bees not use square cells of wax?

Square wax cells used to rear young would be a waste of space. More wax would be required to construct the comb.

Why is the queen honey bee not reared in a hexagon shaped cell?

The queen bee is too large to be reared in standard honeycomb cells. She required a larger cell to develop.

Final Thoughts

Filling the inside of a beehive with honeycomb requires a lot of effort from a lot of bees. The honey bee instinctively knows what is needed for the colony to survive. 

But, these needed hive resources that are collected has to go somewhere. How can the colony store food safely? They build honeycomb with thousands of wax cells for the storage of honey and pollen (or bee bread).

Other than food storage, wax cells are used for raising young. From the egg laid by a queen through the entire honey bee life cycle, wax cells serve as beds for baby bees.

With so much work to do, it is important that the honey bee use the most efficient method of making comb. This is why honey bees use the hexagon – one of the most efficient shapes in nature.