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Have you ever seen a beehive up close? It looks a like tiny home with a special hole for flying in and out.
If you have seen a beehive before, you may have noticed bees hanging out on the outside. This happens when the inside of the hive gets too hot. By staying outside of the hive, bees help lower the temperature and allow more space for warm air to flow out. This process is known as bearding , because the bees look like a furry “beard” hanging off of the hive.
But the most interesting part of a beehive is found inside!
Beehives are made up of sticky “walls” called honeycombs . Each honeycomb is made up of a series of perfectly hexagonal cells. Each side of these six-sided cells has the exact same length, making them fit together like a jigsaw puzzle.
Honeycomb cells have many purposes, but they are often used for storage. Worker bees use them to keep the pollen that they collect. The queen bee uses them to store her eggs. And, of course, the cells serve as important storage for honey.
The hexagonal architecture seems to work really well for our buzzing friends. Have you ever seen beehive cells in any other shape? What about a triangle? A circle? It turns out that there are reasons honeybees have settled exclusively on this six-sided shape.
First, hexagons are the most efficient use of space. When building a hive, bees need honeycomb cells that hold the greatest amount of honey or eggs. Using a circle shape does just that! Unfortunately, rows of circle cells do not line up. Their lack of distinct sides wastes space and leaves gaps between the cells.
On the other hand, the closest shape to a circle is – you guessed it – a hexagon! Hexagons have the all-important flat sides allowing them to fit snugly against one another without any gaps.
Second, building hexagonal cells means less work for the busy bees.
Honeycomb cells are made of wax, which the bees produce themselves. After gathering nectar from nearby flowers, bees use the nectar to create delicious pockets of honey. When bees eat the honey, it slowly oozes out of their bodies as little flakes of wax.
Creating just a small amount of wax is hard work, though! To produce one ounce of wax, bees must consume eight ounces of honey. From there, the bees still need to melt down the wax and mold it into its proper shape.
Considering all the work involved with producing wax and building cells, bees want to use the smallest amount of wax necessary to construct the honeycomb. And that means using the compact shape of the hexagon.
In a hexagon, the total length of the walls is small compared to the total space inside of the cell. In math terms, hexagons have a large area and a small perimeter . A small perimeter means small walls, and less wax! Compared to other shapes, like a square or a rectangle, hexagons have the most appealing ratio of area to perimeter.
In short, honeybees know their geometry inside and out. Hexagonal cells save them work and space.
Next time you come across a beehive, see if you can spot the six-sided cells. Remember to keep your distance and avoid any sudden movements. If bees feel like their hive is threatened, they won’t be afraid to fight back!
Flesch Kincaid Grade Level: 5.9
Flesch Kincaid Reading Ease: 77.9
Bearding: bees clustering on the outside of the hive resembling the shape of a beard
Honeycombs: a collection of hexagonal wax cells
Architecture: the practice of designing and building something
Hexagon: a six-sided shape
Perimeter: the total distance around a shape or object
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Anderson, C. (2021, November 10). What is honeycomb used for? Carolina Honeybees. Retrieved April 14, 2022, from https://carolinahoneybees.com/what-is-honeycomb/
Bee Built. (2014, July 15). The basics of Bearding. Bee Built. Retrieved April 14, 2022, from https://beebuilt.com/blogs/backyard-beekeeping-blog/14855969-the-basics-of-bearding
George, S. (2017, September 1). Why are honeycomb cells hexagonal? Science Friday. Retrieved April 14, 2022, from https://www.sciencefriday.com/educational-resources/why-do-bees-build-hexagonal-honeycomb-cells/
Illustrative Mathematics. (n.d.). Hexagonal pattern of beehives. Illustrative Mathematics. Retrieved April 14, 2022, from https://tasks.illustrativemathematics.org/content-standards/tasks/1126