July 19, 2013 | David F. Coppedge

Do Honeycombs Just Happen, or Do Bees Design Them?

The idea that honeycombs in beehives self-assemble is as old as Darwin.  A new study claims to reinforce the idea, yet honeybees are not just bystanders in the process.

Honeycombs have long been admired as examples of functional design in nature.  The hexagonal packing is the most efficient method of maximizing storage area while minimizing building materials.  Is this an example of design in nature, or natural laws at work?  Maybe that’s a false dichotomy.

Nature News announced the self-assembly theme in an article entitled, “How honeycombs can build themselves.”  Writer Philip Ball recounts how Darwin thought of self-assembly: “The idea that the bees might first make circular cells, which become hexagonal subsequently, was proposed by Charles Darwin,” he writes, “But he was unable to find convincing evidence of it.”  That evidence has supposedly been forthcoming in a new study by an engineer in the UK:

Engineer Bhushan Karihaloo at the University of Cardiff, UK, and his co-workers say that bees simply make cells that are circular in cross section and are packed together like a layer of bubbles. According to their research, which appears in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface, the wax, softened by the heat of the bees’ bodies, then gets pulled into hexagonal cells by surface tension at the junctions where three walls meet.

This finding feeds into a long-standing debate about whether the honeycomb is an example of exquisite biological engineering or blind physics.

Further reading, however, shows that the bees are not mere bystanders, even if they employ the natural laws of “blind physics” —

It might seem like there is not much left for the bees to do once they’ve made the circular cells. But they do seem to be expert builders. They can, for example, use their head as a plumb-line to measure the vertical, tilt the axis of the cells very slightly up from the horizontal to prevent the honey from flowing out, and measure cell wall thicknesses with extreme precision. Might they not, then, continue to play an active part in shaping the circular cells into hexagons, rather than letting surface tension do the job?

Good question.  Another physicist noted that if bees’ body heat were so important to the process, the whole hive would melt down.

Live Science stated that the honeycomb, “once thought to be an incredible feat of math-savvy insects” has been “explained by simple mechanics.”  Later in that article, though, is the suggestion that bees focus their body heat to shape the hexagonal cells after first carving them out as cylinders.  Another biologist spoke of the “the mechanisms that honeybees manage to build very precise cells,” suggesting there is more going on than “simple mechanics.”  That biologist also hinted that humans could learn something from the bees’ techniques.

If honeycombs were the product of blind physics alone, why are they so precise in beehives?  Columnar basalt is an example of natural law at work without design.  When some lava flows cool, they crack into polygonal shapes, usually hexagons—but not always.  Displays like Devil’s Postpile in California, spectacular as they are, show the limits of natural law; irregular polygons, falling into piles at the base.  Nothing forces them to assemble at precise angles or thicknesses for any conceivable function.  Similarly, bubbles on the surface of water can sometimes assume hexagonal borders due to surface tension, but are rarely free of defects.  Honeycomb hexagons, by contrast, are very orderly and regular, maximizing space and minimizing wax, for a specified purpose: creating space for honey storage and the raising of young.

Another example can be found with arches.  Natural arches can be very large and spectacular, but we can tell intuitively whether an arch is natural or designed.  The Arc de Triomphe in Paris, the arches in a basement supporting a building, or the arches in a Roman aqueduct spanning a canyon for miles, would never result from natural law.  Why do they differ from Delicate Arch in Utah?  Delicate Arch doesn’t do anything.  It has no specification, no purpose.  There, a sandstone fin eroded, weakest part first, till the most stable structure – an arch – formed and enlarged till it stands near to collapse, joining other arches in the park where gravity took over.  No mind was involved.  The man-made arches, though, required a mind. They function for artistry (commemorating a military victory), for architecture, or for carrying water.  Because they function, the design specs for them are more critical and precise.  Some Roman aqueducts, still standing today, maintained a very, very slight declination to keep the water flowing for over 30 miles, despite hills and canyons along the route.

Just because bees know how to use surface tension does not mean they are bystanders in a blind process of physics.  On the contrary, knowing how to use natural law efficiently is evidence of intelligent design.  If a bee can start with a round hole and use surface tension to help mold it into a hexagon, the bee is working smart, just as much as an engineer using gravity to advantage.  The bee doesn’t just let nature do it.  The bee supervises the result, ensuring that the resulting honeycomb meets the requirements for precise wall thicknesses and inclinations of the cells.

The intelligent design in the case of honeycomb construction resides not in the brains of the bees themselves, but in the instinctive abilities programmed into them.  They carry out the programmed instincts like miniature robots.  That presupposes a robot-maker.  Who was it?  That’s an interesting question, but it’s beyond the scope of intelligent design theory.  Just as one can tell an aqueduct was designed without knowing the designer, one can infer intelligent design in honeycombs from the specified complexity observed, whether or not certain natural laws come into play during its construction.  The observation of design does not require knowing the identify of the designer, but makes belief in a personal, purposeful God, such as the God of the Bible, the most reasonable step of faith in the direction the evidence points.


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  • ivanBio says:

    It makes sense in this case of bee’s wax.
    Other examples of natural structures with exagonal shapes we find out in some kind of Earth’s clouds and the more powerfull already observed, at north pole of Saturn.
    But the research was conducted by an engineer and not an biologist. Therefore, is not surprising that he simply leave out the same process observed in wasps, that do not use wax to construct its cells.
    Is necessary an more embracing sight about the phenomenon and observing the ancestral pattern.

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