An engineer asks: Why do honeybees love hexagons

(Martin R) #1


i am a mechanical engineer (university degree, europe)

Recently i came across the following TED video:

The author compares various shapes of the honey combs, and finally concluded, that bees ‘agreed on’ the most efficient shape (hexagones ) for the maximum storage capacity…

from the video:

“they (bees) agreed on an ideal size (shape) and returned to work…”

Why the author of the video speaks to me like i was mentally ill ?

"Bees agreed on ? "

from the video: “Hexagonal-shape is probably the result of trial and error … long evolutionary history… bla …bla …bla…bla…bla…bla…”

Probably ?

Bees agreed on ?

Trial and error ?

Where are all the errors ?


Where are some circle / triangle / rectangle - shaped honeycombs ? Was something like that ever found ?

Where are all the trials and errors ?

An engineer asks:

There are like 10,000,000 kinds of species on Earth right now, how many ‘errors’ did you biologists and other experts find so far ? like 5 or 10 ?

Can someone explain to me ?

(Mark D.) #2

The first thing to notice, I think, is that the question of why the hexagon shape is most advantageous is separate from the question of how bees evolved to make their cells in that shape. Or is it?

Perhaps it really is as simple as random mutation and the feedback loop of survival advantage. Bees which managed their time and effort the best should have an advantage. Bees work pretty hard gathering all that pollen to make the honey which sustains them. And bees that could store the honey in times of plenty would be better able to exploit a wider range of habitats.

Perhaps when they first started creating wax cells to store honey, the cell shape wasn’t as consistent. Perhaps different bees had different tendencies but the ones who tended toward efficient shapes best served the hive by requiring less fuel to make the wax required for the construction of those cells. The bees who constructed the most efficient cells would be the most successful and live to pass on that trait. The more successful hives would naturally come to predominate, thereby selecting for that trait.

The successful bees did not and need not understand that the hexagon was optimal in order for that shape to be selected for. And neither would a designer who understood what shape was optimal be required to instill that tendency in the bee. Rather, out of all the shapes they might have begun with, that is the one which in fact is optimal and so bees that constructed them that way would become the most successful while those constructing less optimal structures would naturally die out.

(Matthew Pevarnik) #3

Unless of course bees don’t actually make the hexagons intentionally:

(Martin R) #4

that’s interesting, i also like the title of the article “Bees don’t do math”

A good joke … bees create a perfect circle, thousands of them, perfect copies - next to each other…

but they don’t do math … also the waggle dance, they don’t do math either…

" The waggle dance - the direction the bee moves in relation to the hive indicates direction; if it moves vertically the direction to the source is directly towards the Sun. The duration of the waggle part of the dance signifies the distance."

i see… bees don’t do math

Another article, another author who talks to me like i was mentally ill…

However, it does not answer my questions:

Where are some triangle / rectangle / oval / rhombus - shaped honeycombs ? Was something like that ever found ?


Also, i asked another question:

There are like 10,000,000 kinds of species on Earth right now, how many ‘errors’ did you biologists and other experts find so far ? like 5 or 10 ?


(Martin R) #5

very very very nice story… i heard that one before…[content removed by moderator]

Trial and error ?

Where are all the errors ?


Where are some circle / triangle / rectangle - shaped honeycombs ? Was something like that ever found ?

Where are all the trials and errors ?

An engineer asks:

There are like 10,000,000 kinds of species on Earth right now, how many ‘errors’ did you biologists and other experts find so far ? like 5 or 10 ?

Can someone explain to me ?

(Christy Hemphill) #6

Stop it with the condescending tone, Martin.

(Martin R) #7

you know i am not native, could you explain what is “condescending tone” ?

(Christy Hemphill) #8

Don’t make negative comments about other people’s intelligence, reading comprehension, honesty, character, motivation, or sanity.

(Matthew Pevarnik) #9

Are you trying to ask, where are the imperfections of nature? Or why don’t we see organisms poorly suited to their environments? There’s a nice little book on human ‘errors’ written recently by Dr. Nathan Lents:

But the word ‘errors’ or not and the discussion of ‘design’ or not is not something that can be quantified scientifically. One can still have a divine creator and there be messiness among the biological world.

(Mark D.) #10

I actually prefer Peva’s ‘story’ but here, since you asked, is where those badly shaped cells went in my story.

When the bees constructing them disappeared, so would the wonky cells.

But anyway my hypothesis is happy to step aside in the light of Peva’s article. May the best idea always win.

(Matthew Pevarnik) #11

Are these perfect hexagons?

A more perfect hexagon is formed naturally (or from a Christian perspective, by laws of physics/chemistry that God made and upholds) in graphene:


(Mark D.) #12

Not in the mathematical sense but they do have a certain wabi sabi charm.


Paper wasps build nests with cells that are round. But they don’t use the cells to store food.

(Martin R) #14

i am aware of that book … who said that some bone is pointless ? who said? a biologist ? is a biologist qualified to review any design ? you even don’t know what human body is made of… you found a new organ recently…

However, my question again:

There are like 10,000,000 kinds of species on Earth right now, i will make it easier, lets say that each species has like 1000 working parts (probably much more) … parts that work in concert…

10,000,000 x 1000 = 10,000,000,000 parts that work in concerts…

how many ‘errors’ did you biologists and other experts find so far (in total) ?

5 or 10 ?

GIVE ME A NUMBER! Don’t show me some book…

(Martin R) #15

yes, these seem kind of distorted, but why are you posting such pictures ?
you must be a scientist … how do you know how it looked before ? Perhaps it got distorted afterwards…in time…

(Martin R) #16

have you ever heard of boston dynamics company? They design robots…

Send this Lents guy visit that company… lets see how many pointless parts will he find… i bet, he will find like 1000s pointless parts…

(Matthew Pevarnik) #17

That’s not actually the point of the book, nor any kind of understanding of the theory of evolution - the book is about all of the evidence in our bodies and genomes of our shared ancestry that are not ‘pointless’ but rather can cause negative effects for us today.

There was not a new organ found that we didn’t know about!

You do realize that we do expect to find organisms to be relatively well suited to their environments (otherwise they’d go extinct rather quickly). But what classifies something as ‘perfectly working’ or an ‘error.’ Those words are not particularly helpful (like the title of the book I linked) as they imply some kind of idea Aristotelian eternal form that organisms or humans must fit to. But there’s no ‘ideal’ or ‘perfection’ in biology so I don’t think your question can have an answer.

(Mervin Bitikofer) #18

Thanks for sharing that article, Matthew. That is interesting indeed and immediately resonates with any who are attentive to geometry. If marbles get packed into a layer in the bottom of a box they will most “naturally” form the type of tessellation seen on the right, and not the more wasteful one on the left. Yet we wouldn’t think to ourselves that the marbles must be impressively “doing math”. And if a the configuration on the right involved flexible (or warmed) barriers, one can see how hexagons would naturally be formed as the walls moved in to occupy the in-between circle spaces.


On a different note entirely, I think this article showcases for us how popular science language contributes unnecessarily to science antagonism. Consider the sentence below that comes from the linked article:

The perfect hexagonal shape of honeycomb cells — once thought to be an incredible feat of math-savvy insects — has now been explained by simple mechanics.

Note the implied competition here: wonder or awe or admiration for some feat … is set up here as being in competition with its ostensible adversary: explanation. It is an understandable stance … a trick in a magic show is more impressive to us while we remain unable to explain it. So we attempt to explain it, and when we succeed, we then have that earned feeling of having dismissed our need to hold it in awe. But this is an entirely unfortunate posture for science enthusiasts to encourage. The message then becomes … “we’ve got this … nothing to see here - move along. You thought this was cool but it isn’t.” I think we would all agree here that this dismissive attitude has no warrant whatsoever (religious or not). So bees do things in a way that makes sense … COOL! And if somebody in the future delves into the tiny “bee mind” and explains why they are capable of doing things so efficiently and choose to do so … then COOL! It’s all amazing, and (for the theist) showcases God’s glory no matter how many levels of explanation we manage to find.

One other interesting thing to note (as @Jon_Garvey has many times!) is all the personifications of nature that always creep into writings of those who presumably would never let slip that they have any sympathies whatsoever with anything “intelligent design”.

In the article we find:

My own feeling is that nature tries to minimize energy spent, …

Always interesting how this desire to impute “will” or “desire” even to inanimate things intrudes itself into our outlooks on things. Bees probably don’t and never did hold committee meetings and argue the math out with each other about the best ways to make honeycombs. And if bees didn’t do it, “nature” probably didn’t either. But none of this (either way) should diminish our admiration for how all of God’s creation works.

(Martin R) #19

show me some…the ones which gone extinct because of errors in working parts … must be millions …



(Martin R) #20

if i would write something like that, Christy would ban my account.

Listen, if i am the one who is unable to read things accurately, why such a title of the article ?
“Is the Interstitium Really a New Organ?”


“Scientists say they’ve found a new human organ”


" New Human ‘Organ’ Was Hiding in Plain Sight"

You talk to me like i was mentally ill…

Are you?