Why Are Honeycombs Hexagons?

(Last Updated On: November 19, 2020)

You don’t have to be a beekeeper or even someone who particularly likes bees to respect that bee hustle. Or you just like honey. It really doesn’t matter, the point is bees are pretty neat and we don’t even like bugs that much on the blog. But that’s not why you’re here, you’re here for beehives, which have those now almost iconic hexagon-shaped honeycombs. In elementary or middle school (if you’re American) geometry class, you probably learned that the triangle was the most stable shape. Hexagons are not triangles. So why are honeycombs hexagons?

Further Reading: Why Are Honeybees Dying and What Impact Does It Have?

How Are Honeycombs Made?

So we should probably lay out how bees even make their little hive honeycombs in the first place. Honeycombs actually don’t start looking like hexagons. They start as circles–which you may want to keep in the back of your mind as we move forward.

There’s been a lot of research done into the structure of honeycombs–and for good reason. Like many things in nature, they’ve been optimized through evolution for a really, really long time. 

When bees collect honey, the sugar in it is turned to wax. How’s that done? Just inside their bodies–it appears as waxy flakes on worker bees’ bodies that gets collected by other bees in the hive. It’s this wax that gets used in the construction of the hive. Honestly that process is far less interesting than it might seem, bees just kinda chew it until it gets soft and then spit it out (followed by some molding) to make the hive. 

As we mentioned before, the beehives don’t actually start as hexagonal towers. They start as cylinders. Bees are also capable of controlling the temperature of their hives–acutely between 30-35 degrees Celsius. 

Once the cylinders are up, bees melt the wax a bit. Take a bunch of toilet paper tubes (or any kind of tube, really) and pack them all next to each other. You’ll notice quite a few gaps in between each cylinder. These caps are where the bees have put up wax, but you’ll notice quite a bit of wasted space. So bees work at these gaps and move the excess away to maximize space. If you try to visualize it for a bit, you’ll realize it makes hexagons. The exact process by which the excess is removed is a little debateable, but it probably has to do with melting the wax.

Alright, So Why Hexagon?

Let’s engage in a thought experiment. In this experiment we’re going to tile your bathroom floor, but use tiles made only of regular polygons. You’ll notice quickly that triangles, squares, and hexagons are the only shapes that can neatly tile together without needing any other shapes. For example, trying to tile with regular pentagons will leave you with some gaps that have to be filled with rhombuses. Regular octagons give you holes that have to be filled with squares. You might even see these patterns on tiled floors.

So fine, we’re left with squares, triangles, and hexagons. Let’s look at squares first. Squares tile by just effectively dividing themselves. Put 4 squares together and all you’re left with is a bigger square. 

Triangles do a similar thing. But you’ll also notice that when you tile triangles together, you can put 6 of them together to create, you guessed it, a hexagon!

Many other shapes that don’t tile by making squares also just make hexagons. 3 rhombuses? Hexagon. Even pentagons form “Cairo Tiles.” Which are just oddly shaped hexagons.

How does this boil down to making honeycombs? Well it’s quite simple. Bees are just using the most efficient shape. Tiling regular hexagons means bees use the least amount of wax possible to make the walls between cells. It’s that thing with the circles. Put them together and get rid of all the gaps, you get hexagons.

Not Just the Bees

Hexagons are just neat for geometry in general. Studying organic chemistry? One of the first things you’ll learn is that benzene is super stable. What’s benzene look like?

Right. A hexagon.

We even use the bee’s honeycomb structure in our own engineering. Take two slabs of material and have honeycomb layers in between them. You get something really strong and really flexible. One of the more common applications of these patterns are planes and rockets. 

Even cardboard boxes do some honeycombing. Pull one apart and you’ll notice. 

Oh and we didn’t know where to put this, but Saturn has an absolutely massive hexagon on its poles. Each side is 14,500 kilometers, also known as 2,000 kilometers the diameter of all of Earth.

Probably shouldn’t mix birds and bees since they eat each other, but if you want to mix the birds and the bees do so here.

About the Author:

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Kyler is a content writer at Sporcle living in Seattle, and is currently studying at the University of Washington School of Law. He's been writing for Sporcle since 2019; sometimes the blog is an excellent platform to answer random personal questions he has about the world. Most of his free time is spent drinking black coffee like water.