Krulwich On Insect Communities Understood Through Mathematics

Another of those wonders, this time about bees, brought to you by the godfather of fun science reporters:

Solved! A bee-buzzing, honey-licking 2,000-year-old mystery that begins here, with this beehive. Look at the honeycomb in the photo and ask yourself: (I know you’ve been wondering this all your life, but have been too shy to ask out loud … ) Why is every cell in this honeycomb a hexagon?

Bees, after all, could build honeycombs from rectangles or squares or triangles …

But for some reason, bees choose hexagons. Always hexagons.

And not just your basic six-sided hexagon. They like “perfect” hexagons, meaning all six sides are of equal length. They go for the jewelers’ version — precise, just so. Why?

Well, this is a very old question. More than 2,000 years ago, in 36 B.C., a Roman soldier/scholar/writer, Marcus Terentius Varro, proposed an answer, which ever since has been called “The Honeybee Conjecture.” Varro thought there might be a deep reason for this bee behavior. Maybe a honeycomb built of hexagons can hold more honey. Maybe hexagons require less building wax. Maybe there’s a hidden logic here.

I like this idea — that below the flux, the chaos of everyday life there might be elegant reasons for what we see. “The Honeybee Conjecture” is an example of mathematics unlocking a mystery of nature, so here, with help from physicist/writer Alan Lightman, (who recently wrote about this in Orion Magazine) is Varro’s hunch.

Read the whole post here.

2 thoughts on “Krulwich On Insect Communities Understood Through Mathematics

  1. Pingback: Bringing Biology to Life |

  2. Pingback: Samso Sheds Light On Maine’s Green Desires | Raxa Collective

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