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How do honeybees construct their hive?

It is not unusual to see honeycomb patterns used in the packaging design of merchandise to suggest to customers that an item contains honey or some other bee product such as royal jelly. However, despite the fact that these hexagonal shapes are recognised by many people as being linked to bees, it might not be as well known how exactly bees make honeycomb and build their hive.

Step One – finding a location

Honeybees that are farmed by apiarists are provided with the space in which to build their hive by the individual looking after them. Typically, colonies will be provided with man-made straw, pottery, or wooden structures that are designed to be a suitable place in which these insects can make their honeycomb.

Wild honeybees, on the other hand, usually choose to construct their nests in hollowed-out wood, rock crevices, the underside of roofs, and generally anywhere which offers protection from the elements.

After finding a place they feel is suitable for their hive, both types of bees will begin the construction of their nest from the top, downwards.

Step Two – constructing the comb

Worker bees prepare the space by covering its walls with a thin layer of propolis. This substance is made from plant resins collected by the bees, wax secreted from glands in their abdomens, and their saliva. Bees use propolis to cover surfaces on the inside of their hive at various stages of the build as it has antimicrobial properties which help protect the colony from harmful germs that have the potential to be introduced from the outside once the hive is finished.

Next, the bees will chew the wax they secrete until it is soft, bonding bits of it together to eventually form individual cells. These cells will be used to store nectar, pollen, water, honey, eggs, and larvae. As bees age, they produce a lower quality of wax – consequently the bees in charge of building comb are usually between two to three weeks old.

Once constructed, the hive will normally have just one entrance and will be occupied by the colony for several years. Unlike some other types of bees and wasps, honeybees do not build a new nest every year, instead creating a sturdier structure which can be used for a longer period of time.

The walls of a finished honeycomb can support up to 30 times their own weight and will contain honey in their upper sections, pollen in the rows below this, followed by worker brood cells, drone brood cells, and finally queen cells at the bottom of the structure.

How do bees make their cells hexagonal?

The hexagonal shapes created during the hive-building process have been a cause for debate in the scientific world since at least the 4th century AD, when Greek mathematician Pappus of Alexandria stated that bees had "a certain geometrical forethought".

Some individuals believed that bees made cells this shape because it enabled them to store the greatest quantity of food while using as little wax in their construction as possible. Others argued that bees made round cells, but the surface tension at junctions where cells met pulled the circles into hexagons. In addition to this, there were also people who thought that hexagonal shapes were the automatic result of each bee trying to make the cell it was working on as large as possible, with the edges of each pressing up against the next.

In July 2013, a study headed by Engineer Bhushan Karihaloo at the University of Cardiff, UK, seemed to bring this dispute to an end simply by using a smoker – but might have prompted more questions than answers.

This piece of equipment is used by apiarists who want to collect honey and other useful substances from hives by moving bees away from important sections of the comb. Blowing smoke into and around the hive from this hand-held container will repel the bees, as well as make them more docile.

As part of this experiment, Karihaloo's team deliberately disturbed a colony of bees, which were in the process of making comb, by smoking them away from certain sections of the structure. By doing this, they observed that the most recently built cells were circular, whereas those that had been constructed just a little beforehand were hexagonal.

This research found that the heat generated by the bees while they worked caused the wax of the comb to melt, ultimately leading to the cell walls becoming flattened and hexagonal in shape. This would suggest that surface tension does indeed play a part in this phenomenon, however, it is still not entirely clear whether the bees do this on purpose, or whether the heat they exude naturally during this process happens to produce this result.

Nevertheless, research has proven that bees are able to measure the depth of each cell by crawling into them and can determine the width of comb walls using various other parts of their bodies. They also seem to know when to change the tilt of cells to prevent honey from dripping out. With this much instinctual supposed mathematical skill, there is a possibility that bees do more to influence the shape of their comb's cells than meets the eye.

For more information about bees and the production of bee propolis, you may be interested in the following articles: