Do bees make hexagons?

It is time for you to consider the deeply profound question: Do bees make hexagons?

You look at a honeycomb, the thing that the bees build, and it has hexagons. So the answer seems obvious: sure, bees make hexagons.

HoneycombThere are a lot of websites out there that will tell you that bees make hexagons because a hexagon is an incredibly stable structure that maximizes internal volume relative to the amount of wax needed to create the walls, and it also “tessellates”, that is, it can create a repeated pattern with no gaps.  These same websites will go on and on about how wise nature is and how creative bees are and how amazing it is that these creatures have evolved to find such an amazingly efficient solution to a mathematical and architectural problem.

It’s a load of garbage.

If you watch what bees actually do, they are not building hexagons: they are building circular cells that, because of the physics of pressure points and the plasticity of wax walls, collapse into the shapes of hexagons.

Is there is a difference?

There is nothing in the genetic code of the behavior of bees that in any way can be decoded to mean “create a hexagon”. What exists is a behavioral program that makes circles: one after the other, row after row. There is no planning and no forethought. They make one circle after another. It doesn’t matter the order of. The second circle is the same as the first.

It is only the physics of the environment that causes these circles to become hexagons. After the circles are laid down, it is the environment and not the bees that create the shape.

But it’s the result that matters, right? So, in the long-term, end-product sense: bees make hexagons. In the short-term, efficient-cause sense: bees make circles.

So I’ll ask you again: do bees make hexagons?  Or: do bees make circles that end up being hexagons (because wax is a crappy material to use if you really want to make nice, stable circles)?

If we were talking about people, the question we would ask is this: does the person intend to make circles, and thus feel as though he fails every time it ends up being a hexagon? Or, does the person intend to make hexagons, and he has just found a very clever way of doing this by making a wax circle and letting “nature take its course” with the end result?

Bieber-MaddowConsider a hypothetical situation in your own life. Suppose you are trying to draw a picture of Justin Bieber wearing glasses. You draw the picture and show it to a friend. Your friend says: Wow, you did a great drawing of Rachel Maddow!

So now the question is: What did you draw? Did you draw a picture of Justin Bieber? Or did you draw a picture of Rachel Maddow? You intended to draw a picture of Justin Bieber, but it ended up looking like Rachel Maddow. In most cases, you would probably argue that you drew a picture of Justin Bieber–because that is what you intended–and it just didn’t turn out very well.

I’m not sure we can ask the question “what do they intend?” about the bees. I don’t think we have any particular reason to suspect that bees have an active mental model of their desired goal-state when they are making honeycombs. Perhaps they do. Someone should study that.

But suppose they do not have a mental model of the final end state. In the absence of intentionality, how do you decide whether the bee is making a very good approximation of a hexagon or a very bad approximation of a circle?

Personally, I’m inclined to think in terms of the mechanical movements of the bees, and the genetic code that programmed those movements. Based on that, bees make very bad circles.

But an argument could also be made that the end result is what ultimately determines the survival value of those genetically programmed behaviors, and therefore can sensibly be said to be the “goal” of the evolved behavior. Based on that view, bees make a good hexagon.

Answering the question “Do bees make hexagons?” is actually a very complex question with no straight-forward answer. It ultimately depends on what you think about the relationships between intentionality, evolution, and meaning.

So what do you think? Do bees make hexagons?

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  1. charles smithers says:

    Interesting article, i dont think they make hexagons at all, look at the spaces in the honeycomb, they look pretty circular. I also like how you slammed bieber in a piece about bees

  2. Neal Miller says:

    Hexagons, my arse. If you pour yourself a bowl of milk, and drop three or four dozen Cheerios onto the milk’s surface, you’ll see “hexagon” arrangements appear through the magic of surface tension.

    This isn’t to say that Cheerios are just as intelligent as bees, but Cheerios are significantly less likely to skewer your esophagus with an apitoxin-soaked barb when you swallow them.

  3. michiel says:

    the video above shows a more complex structure in the bee’s comb. I’m curious if you’ve followed up on this phenomenon and perhaps you know of available documentation/ data gathering and estimates of the actual gestures that bees make in construction and the forces they exert, combined with the forces of physics that come into play, as the wax they use dries and solidifies ( cohesion and surface tension forces, gravity)

  4. encyclops says:

    Might the answer be “bees make roughly bee-sized cells,” without a careful attempt to make any particular shape?

  5. Neal Miller says:

    Nah, bees get points for their angle-of-the-sun communicative dances. That’s pretty damned clever for a species with under a million neurons apiece. But hexagons…? If my inanimate Cheerios can pull off the stunt, it’s just not that impressive.

    Odds are good that “those touting the supposed miraculous cleverness of bees” (with regard to hexagons) aren’t keen on physics or math.

    Unfortunately, they’re still allowed to drive cars. And vote.

  6. Neal Miller says:

    The premise is nonsense… Drop two dozen Cheerios in a bowl of milk, and thanks to the wonders of physics, you’ll see the same hexagonal formations. Pour ball bearings into a box such that they cover the bottom surface, and you’ll see it there too.

    It’s not genetics or biology. It’s physics, and at the most fundamental level, it’s math.

    • Greg Stevens says:

      Absolutely! As I said in the article, I’m inclined to agree with you on this. The bees are making poorly-constructed circles, that end up looking like hexagons because of physics.

      What prompted me to write this was my annoyance with all of the websites out there touting the supposed miraculous cleverness of bees-and/or-evolution in coming up with the “hexagon” design. *sigh*

      • Lisa Hafey says:

        Sillies 🙂 Darwin did a lot of studies into bees, and concluded the hexagons were actually circular cells – there’s stuff about it at Down House, Kent, England.

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