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Why are Beehives Hexagonal?

Inside the interior of a honey bee nest, we find many sheets of wax comb.  Each sheet of honeycomb contains thousands of individual cells.  These cells are necessary for colony survival.  They not only serve as a place to rear young, they also store food for Winter and help the colony stay warm.  Interestingly, each wax cell may vary just a bit in size but they are all alike in one way – a basic hexagon shape.  Why are the cells inside beehives hexagonal?

Why Bees Make Hexagons Inside the Hive

Honey bee shaped comb in hexagon shapes inside a hive.

The honey bee instinctively knows what is needed for the colony to survive.  Needed hive resources are collected by foraging bees.

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Honeycomb cells are needed for storage of honey and pollen or bee bread. Without enough stored food, the colony will not survive the cold months of Winter.

Another important use of honeycomb cells involves raising young. Developing bees are raised and cared for in cells located in the central region of the hive. They will become the next generation of workers. 

As far as we know, honey bees are not master mathematicians – but maybe they are. We do know that bees make hexagonal shaped cells.  A hexagon is a plane figure with 6 sides, 6 vertices and 6 angles.

Worker bees cleaning wax cells in hive.

The Honeycomb Conjecture

A Roman scholar named, Marcus Terentius Varro, theorized that bees use the hexagonal shape because it was the most compact. But, it was Thomas Hales (University of Michigan) who proved The Honeycomb Conjecture with mathematical proof.

In regular beekeeper terms, 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. The larger amount of honey that can be stored in the comb space is important to hard working bees.

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

Beeswax Production is Expensive

Some insects use materials found in nature to build their nests.  Wasps nest are much different from a beehive.  Wasps build paper nests.  Bumble bees do a great job of recycling because they use abandoned rodent burrows.

But the honey bee is unique in nesting materials.  They make beeswax using special glands found on the underside abdomens of female worker bees.

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.

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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.  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.

Honeycomb Shapes are Efficient and Strong

Filling the interior of a beehive with cells numbering in the thousands requires a lot of effort from a lot of bees. The colony strives to make use of all available space and needs a strong population to get the jobs completed.

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.

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