The hexagonal shapes found in a honeycomb are often used in the packaging design of merchandise to suggest to customers that the item contains honey or some other bee product such as royal jelly. However, despite the fact that hexagons are recognized by many people as being linked to bees, it's probably fair to say that not many know how bees make honeycomb or build their hives.
Here, we provide a brief overview:
Step One – finding a location
Honeybees farmed by apiarists are provided with a ready-made space in which to build their hive. Typically, colonies will be provided with man-made straw, pottery, or wooden structures designed to be a suitable place for the bees to make their honeycomb. Honeycomb is, essentially, a mass of wax cells built by the bees to contain larvae, stores of honey, and pollen
Wild honeybees, on the other hand, usually choose to construct their 'nest' (the term for a colony built in the wild as opposed to in a man-made setting) in hollowed-out wood, rock crevices, the underside of roofs, and generally anywhere which offers protection from the elements.
After finding a place they feel is suitable for their colony, both types of bees will begin the construction of their honeycomb from the top, downwards.
Step Two – constructing the comb
Worker bees prepare the space by covering its walls with a thin layer of propolis. This substance is made from plant resins collected by the bees, wax secreted from glands in their abdomens, and their saliva. Bees use propolis to cover surfaces on the inside of their hive at various stages of the build to help bind things together – hence why it is often referred to as bee glue.
Next, the bees will chew the wax they secrete until it is soft, bonding bits of it together to eventually form individual cells. These cells will be used to store nectar, pollen, water, honey, eggs, and larvae. As the bees age, they produce a lower quality of wax – consequently, the bees in charge of building comb are usually between two to three weeks old.
Once constructed, the hive will normally have just one entrance and will be occupied by the colony for several years. Unlike some other types of bees and wasps, honeybees do not build a new hive every year, instead creating a sturdier structure which can be used for a longer period of time.
The walls of a finished honeycomb can support up to 30 times their own weight and will contain honey in their upper sections, pollen in the rows below this, followed by worker brood cells, drone brood cells, and finally queen cells at the bottom of the structure.
How do bees make their cells hexagonal?
The hexagonal shapes created during the hive-building process have been a cause for debate in the scientific world since at least the 4th century AD when Greek mathematician Pappus of Alexandria stated that bees had "a certain geometrical forethought".
Some individuals believed that bees made cells this shape because it enabled them to store the greatest quantity of food while using as little wax in their construction as possible. Others argued that bees made round cells, but the surface tension at junctions where cells met pulled the circles into hexagons. In addition to this, there were also people who thought that hexagonal shapes were the automatic result of each bee trying to make the cell it was working on as large as possible, with the edges of each pressing up against the next.
In July 2013, a study headed by Engineer Bhushan Karihaloo at the University of Cardiff, UK, seemed to bring this dispute to an end simply by using a smoker – but this work may have prompted more questions than it provided answers.
A smoker is a piece of hand-held equipment used by apiarists who want to collect honey and other useful substances from hives. The smoke which is blown into and around the hive helps to move bees away from important sections of the comb. The smoke repels the bees, as well as making them more docile.
As part of the experiment, Karihaloo's team deliberately disturbed a colony of bees by smoking them away from certain sections of the structure as they were in the process of making the comb. By doing this, they observed that the most recently built cells were circular, whereas those that had been constructed just a little beforehand were hexagonal.
This research found that the heat generated by the bees while they worked caused the wax of the comb to melt, ultimately leading to the cell walls becoming flattened and hexagonal in shape. This would suggest that surface tension does indeed play a part in developing the distinctive structure of honeycomb, however, it is still not entirely clear whether the bees exude the heat on purpose to melt the wax, or whether it occurs naturally and the hexagons are the result.
Nevertheless, research has proven that bees measure the depth of each cell by crawling into them and they determine the width of comb walls using other parts of their bodies. They also seem to know when to change the tilt of cells to prevent honey from dripping out. With this much instinctual skill at play, there is a strong possibility that bees do more to influence the shape of their comb's cells than meets the eye.
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