Posts Tagged: science

4 design secrets of the hexagonal honeycomb

Formed by bees heating up and rocks cooling off, hexagons inspire modern design both aesthetic and functional.  Read on to experience how the 6-sided polygon interweaves physics and life, process and pattern, past and present, in a dizzying, epoch-spanning array of forms created by function.

1. Maximum honey, minimum wax.

The honeycomb is an elegant design solution that allows bees to store the maximum amount of honey with the minimum amount of wax. In this quick video tour of the evolutionary math behind the honeybees’ “modern” design, TED ED describes how the hexagon beat out circles, triangles, squares, and pentagons as the most elegant, and efficient, answer to the honeybees food-storage question.

2. Angles determined by bee heat!

No honeybee ever “did the math” to determine precise angles, nor do contemporary honeybees calculate angles. Over time, honeybee bodies evolved to automatically deposit wax in hexagonal shapes by internally warming and cooling in a pattern that would perfectly shape the flow of wax! According to a study posted at

“Here we show that honeybees neither have to measure nor construct the highly regular structures of a honeycomb, and that the observed pattern of combs can be parsimoniously explained by wax flowing in liquid equilibrium. The structure of the combs of honeybees results from wax as a thermoplastic building medium, which softens and hardens as a result of increasing and decreasing temperatures. It flows among an array of transient, close-packed cylinders which are actually the self-heated honeybees themselves.”

Pirk, CWW; Hepburn, HR; Radloff, SE; Tautz. 2004. Honeybee combs: construction through a liquid equilibrium process?. Naturwissenschaften. 91: 350-353.

3. Hexagons appear, disappear, and reappear in evolutionary history

Geologists note  that the hexagon is also a shape that worked for prehistoric coral, as shown in the fossil at right.

Living between 460 and 273 million years ago favosites coral featured tightly packed hexagonal calcite columns that sheltered marine polyps who extended tentacles to extract prey from the seawater around them.

Small gaps in the calcite walls allowed the polyps to share nutrients, while the hexagonal walls allowed individualized organisms to stay as closely packed with minimal structural material.

4. Angles determined by rock cooling!

Stumbling upon perfectly geometric columns of rock can only be described as magical. Even the most austere scientist might find herself (or himself) gaping in awe at the flawless shapes and wondering if men or Gods carved those immaculate columns.

In a fascinating twist of physics, hexagons are also formed by igneous rocks cooling off!

When objects contract, they often crack or fracture. When contraction occurs at centers which are equally spaced, then a hexagonal fracture pattern will develop. If the contraction is not evenly spaced, then other geometries of fractures, such as 5-sided or 7-sided fractures, may occur.

Quotes from American Geophysical Union Georneys blog

Photosynthetic Neighborhoods

Photosynthetic Neighborhoods by Henry S. Horn is a piece featured in Princeton’s 2013 Art of Design online gallery. In it, the “artist” – professor emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Princeton – contrasts the cellular cluster of plant leaves with an aerial photo of an American neighborhood. He writes:

Leaves carry out photosynthesis in clusters of cells locally serviced by end-units of pipes hat deliver water and take away sugar. The cells must be within diffusion distance of pores to exchange carbon dioxide and oxygen. Diffusion may set an upper limit on the size of an efficient cluster, and quasi-fractal branching of pipelines may set a lower limit. Accordingly, many species of local woody plants show photosynthetic clusters of approximately uniform size, and these clusters themselves group hierarchically into neighborhoods of successively larger sizes. The photo fields are 4 millimeters wide, except for the aerial photo of human neighborhoods.