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How do bees make spiral combs?

By David, 5 August 2020 News

Brown sticky spiral of honeycomb.

Tetragonula bees can make spiral combs.
Image: Tim Heard

When you think about a beehive, you might imagine it containing flat combs made of perfect hexagons. Except, that’s not the whole story. There are many different species of bees, and there are lots of ways that bees build their combs.

In Australia and across Oceania, we have many species of stingless bees from the genus Tetragonula, which have beautiful combs. Some hives have stacked circles that look a bit like a target. Others have a spiral shape, and others still make complicated terraces.

It’s easy to think there might be an architect. Perhaps some kind of boss bee that makes sure all the others build in the right place. Despite watching bees for centuries, scientists haven’t found any master plan.

The crystal clue

Now, a team of European researchers have an explanation for these structures. They noticed that patterns in Tetragonula combs were also found in crystals. When crystals form, there are no boss molecules telling them how to grow, yet the molecules tend to attach in patterns due to their shapes.

The researchers took a set of maths equations that explain crystal growth. Then they modified them slightly to make Tetragonula combs. With a bit of work, the team got some great looking results, matching the patterns found in real hives.

They even found out why some combs were spirals. There was one part of the equation that added a bit of randomness, because bees don’t always build their hexagons in line with all the others. When this number was very small, the hive was a beautiful set of stacked circles. Slightly more randomness made spirals and double spirals in the hive, and even more led to complicated terraces. All four of these patterns happen in nature!

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