Mankind nowadays is so absorbed in mechanization and technology that we often overlook the simple marvels of nature that inspire all human feats.
One of them is honeycomb. Yes, honeycomb.
It is a perplexing pattern of configured cells that the honeybees call home.
This array of hexagonal cells is arranged in parallel series with cell walls meeting at exactly 120 degrees.
Bees display fantastic engineering skills and their building gives the impression that they have been equipped with most sophisticated measuring instruments.
Therefore, they are precise architects.
Bees measure the width and thickness of comb cells by utilizing their sensitive receptor hairs (sensilla trichodea), which are concentrated on the mouth and antennae. There are about 8,500 sensilla trichodea and 500,000 receptor cells on one single bee’s antenna.
Using these hairs, bees measure the thickness of cell walls which is approximately 0.073 ± 0.002 mm and each comb is generally 0.95 cm from its neighbor.
The hexagonal geometric shapes gives honeybees an obvious advantage in terms of utilization of area per unit volume. It can store the largest volume with the least amount of construction material.
Austrian ethologist Karl von Frisch wrote, “If the cells were round or, say octagonal or pentagonal, there would be empty spaces between them. This would not only mean a poor utilization of space; it would also compel the bees to build separate walls for all or part of each cell, and entail a great waste of material. These difficulties are avoided by the use of triangles, squares, and hexagons. Provided their depth was the same, such cells would therefore hold the same volume. But of the three geometrical figures equal in area, the hexagonal has the smallest circumference. This means, of course, that the amount of building material required for cells of the same capacity is the least in the hexagonal construction, and hence that such a pattern is the most economical design for warehouses.” (137)
The honeycomb itself is made of wax. The glands of worker bees convert the sugar contents of honey into wax, which oozes through the bee’s small pores to produce tiny flakes of wax on their abdomens. Workers chew these pieces of wax until they become soft and malleable, and then add the chewed wax to the honeycomb construction.
In a vain attempt to mimic this insect artistry I tried drawing regular comb on a sketch book. Despite my attention to detail and frequent use of the ruler and set squares I could not replicate the design. My cells were irregular in shape and size. Don’t believe me? Try it! Draw two rows of hexagonal honeybee cells without any gaps.
It will be very difficult if not impossible to draw regular hexagons with a pencil and then to join them together without leaving any traces or misshaped cells. Yet honeybees have been doing exactly that, in three dimensions, for millions of years.
Hats off to you our buzzing friends. Keep up the architecture!
– Mehreen Arif.