Bee comb

This week I took advantage of what may be the last warm, sunny days of the season to tidy up the bee hives for winter. I removed unneeded boxes of frames from the tops of the hives and shuffled frames within the boxes to keep as much honey in the hive as possible. Thus prepared, winter hives are less likely to blow over in storms and, more important, all the honey is gathered into one place within the hive. In cold winters, bees huddle in a ball around their honey stores, slowly eating the honey as fuel to keep them warm (the center of the hive is as warm as human body temperature). If honey is thinly dispersed, the balmy bee ball cannot form.

I had forgotten just how beautiful the wax combs of honeybees are. The near-perfect six-sided geometry, repeated hundreds of times is a fabulous piece of natural architecture.

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The wax is secreted from chinks in the abdominal exoskeleton of worker bees. The bees then mold the wax into the six-sided pattern using chewed wax particles. This task falls to middle-aged (2-3 week old bees) worker bees. Younger workers look after the brood; older workers leave the hive and forage.

This weekend marks the 153rd anniversary of the publication of On The Origin of Species. It is therefore fitting to include here Mr. Darwin’s thoughts on the wonders of beeswax.

He must be a dull man who can examine the exquisite structure of a comb, so beautifully adapted to its end, without enthusiastic admiration. We hear from mathematicians that bees have practically solved a recondite problem, and have made their cells of the proper shape to hold the greatest possible amount of honey, with the least possible consumption of precious wax in their construction. It has been remarked that a skilful workman, with fitting tools and measures, would find it very difficult to make cells of wax of the true form, though this is perfectly effected by a crowd of bees working in a dark hive. Grant whatever instincts you please, and it seems at first quite inconceivable how they can make all the necessary angles and planes, or even perceive when they are correctly made. But the difficulty is not nearly so great as it at first appears: all this beautiful work can be shown, I think, to follow from a few very simple instincts. (First edition, Chapter VII, page 224).

He elaborated these thoughts with a series of calculations and experiments, summarized in a recent essay at the Darwin Correspondence Project. As you might expect, Darwin concluded that natural mechanisms could explain the structure of bee comb and that sophisticated combs could have evolved from simple beginnings.

This naturalistic view contrasts with the opinions of Darwin’s contemporaries. After reading Darwin’s passage, I pulled down Langstroth’s Hive and the Honey-bee, an important review of bee biology and bee-keeping published in 1859 (the 4th edition, 1878, is the one that I have on hand; post-Darwinian for sure, although Darwin is not mentioned). Langstroth writes of comb:

To an intelligent and candid mind, the smallest piece of honey-comb is a perfect demonstration that there is a “GREAT FIRST CAUSE.”

These enraptured references to the Divine are peppered throughout his work.

Langstroth was a priest, but depression kept him from many of the usual priestly duties. Instead, he studied insects, especially honey bees. Although his theology seems unsophisticated to modern ears, his entomology was not. His careful studies of bee behavior transformed bee-keeping. In particular, these studies led to him a new design of bee hive, a design that is still the preferred hive for most bee-keepers, especially in North America. Unless you’re eating honey from wild nests, you can almost guarantee that the honey in your kitchen came from a Langstroth hive. I use a modified design: Langstroth in the upper portion (from which come the photos in this post) and open in the lower part (no photos — I never open this part, leaving it for the bees to do as they will).

17 thoughts on “Bee comb

  1. Ellen Kuppinger

    David, thanks for the lovely post and photos. I am planning on taking beekeeping classes in late winter so that I can realize my dream of hosting bees. Can you recommend any good books that would help a newbie?

    1. David George Haskell Post author

      Great! Bonney’s Hive Management (Storey Press) is a good book. The catalogs of bee supply companies often also have good info. (Brushy Mtn, Betterbee, etc).

      In my experience, getting started can be a challenge. New bee colonies struggle a bit, so don’t be discouraged if they don’t take at first.

      My philosophy is very hands-off. I figure they know what they are doing better than I do. I also let them build their own brood comb which is not a standard practice by any means.

      Flower power, incarnate.

    1. David George Haskell Post author

      This year I left them the honey. More from total lack of time on my part than anything else. I also have a supply left from last year. They’ll eat well this winter, I hope (my prediction = hard winter here). I did get a few scoops though. Yum.

      The bees stitch the garden into the sky. That is their real purpose. So honey is a bonus.

      I have a post on honey extraction here:

  2. Anonymous

    Thanks so very much for this beautiful entry, David, and for your responses to the comments. The image of “bees stitch[ing] the garden into the sky” is grand. Strange, but this entry moved me with a sense of peace and earthly continuity that I haven’t felt in a while. The “getting and spending” world is more than “too much with us.” Black Friday’s indeed–humbug. Thank you for sharing your gentle, grounded, scientific, and spiritual insights into the “natural life” surrounding us and our integration in it–dare I say Oneness with It? Blessings, Kay MacKenzie

    1. David George Haskell Post author

      Thank you, Kay! I’m very happy that the post connected you to ground (and sky!). Bees will do that. (They’ll also sting, of course — yin/yang in all things).

      Oneness is the great unsung fallout from Darwin. I don’t think any of us have comprehended what it means to truly belong on this Earth, to be kin.

  3. Bruce Burdick

    When I saw a photo of wax scales on the undersides of the abdomens of worker bees (page 38 of Honeybee Democracy by Thomas Seeley), I thought “the bees just secrete the wax, and the hexagonal shape is the result of the bee’s body assuming a hexagonal shape.” Thank you for telling me the hexagonal shape is from the way the bees put down the wax after chewing it.
    To really understand how the comb becomes hexagonal, do we need to see the bees as they construct the comb? Does their mouth move in hexagons as it deposits the wax? Do their feet help guide the wax? How could we see this happening when the hive is dark?
    I wonder if someone could take a gastroenterologists endoscope and put it into a hive, and use infrared or some other light that would not disturb the bees.
    Darwin wants a simple explanation for the honeycomb shape, but if it is from genes coding for proteins that result in behaviors that make the hexagonal shape – that does not sound simple.
    Regarding Oneness being the fallout from Darwin, I had not thought of that. It does seem we are not separate from the forces and conditions that lead to life and the honeybee comb. They are part of us, as they are part of all living things (and all evolved forms of hydrogen and energy.)
    Thanks, Bruce

    1. David George Haskell Post author

      I have read Seeley’s book, but has forgotten this image. Great picture! The scales are so glassy when they first appear.

      To my knowledge, the bees make cylinders first, then the gentle pressure of mouthparts presses them into hexagons as they stack up next to each other. Regular arrays of expanding soap bubbles do the same thing. So, setting up the regular pattern of cylinders is the key first step.

      I agree that getting DNA to code for this kind of behavior (or any complex behavior — e.g., monarchs migrating!) is pretty incredible and not simple by any stretch.

  4. batesvillian

    Was Darwin familiar with the Magicicada genus in North America? Those little suckers (pun intended) have figured out prime numbers. Well, genetically, that is.

    1. David George Haskell Post author

      The only reference I could find was in a letter from 1868 to a Mr. B. D. Walsh:

      “I do not at all know what to think of your extraordinary case of the Cicadas. Professor Asa Gray and Dr. Hooker were staying here, and I told them of the facts. They thought that the 13-year and the 17-year forms ought not to be ranked as distinct species, unless other differences besides the period of development could be discovered. They thought the mere rarity of variability in such a point was not sufficient, and I think I concur with them.”

      So he did not, as far as I can tell, speculate on the curious life history (prime numbers! yes, always).

      I owe you a belated thank you for the essay: whales, and trees, and dreams thrumming with ancient rhythms. What a place. What an experience! You captured the moment with great beauty and elegance. Thank you for sharing this with me.

  5. Bruce Burdick

    Your comment “Oneness is the great unsung fallout from Darwin. I don’t think any of us have comprehended what it means to truly belong on this Earth, to be kin” makes me think we need more thoughts about the impact of biology teaching on students. I think of one reviewer of The Selfish Gene saying he was depressed for 20 years after reading The Selfish Gene. And Jeffrey Skilling applied his interpretation of The Selfish Gene, and Enron become a cut throat place to work, and ended in bankruptcy. Might you have some thoughts on “Best Practices” in teaching biology? Here are some of my thoughts.;postID=7581160957747597120

    Thanks, Bruce

    1. David George Haskell Post author

      Speaking from my own narrative, I found the Selfish Gene book to be a great inspiration and not depressing at all. The fact that evolution has at its root competitive elements does not negate the beauty of life. I think that in the years since the book came out we’ve had some new insights into how selection operates, and some vigorous debates. E O Wilson’s latest book talks about some of these.

      A bigger issue, I think, these days is how to convey the magnitude of the environmental crisis without knocking students into apathy, despair, or knee-jerk responses. Keeping our eye on the particularities of local ecology and natural history is part of an answer, I think, as is integration of science with other ways of thinking/reflecting such as art and literature.

      1. Bruce Burdick

        It is interesting how one person can read The Selfish Gene and find it a great inspiration and not depressing at all, and an reviewer can say The Selfish Gene depressed him for 20 years. Do we need better ways to evaluate our impact on our audience? Is a 5 star rating system at adequate? Or do we need questionnaires that better reflect how we affect our audience, and motivate them to take action on the important issues of our day? There is a Journal of Positive Psychology. Perhaps it might help with questionnaires that could be given before and after taking a biology class, or before and after reading a book. Instead of teachers just teaching to convey facts and information, might they also study ways to increase their student’s questionnaire scores on questions like the following:
        On a scale of 0 to 10 where 0 is not at all, and “10” is “I agree completely” please answer the following:
        “The environment is in crisis and it is important that I do what I can to restore it to health.”
        “The health of the environment affects my health. If the air becomes polluted , or the water becomes polluted, that pollution can make me and those around me sick.”
        “My personal health and happiness are very important. For me to be healthy and happy I must do what I can to help those around me be healthy and happy.”
        “Endorphins (from exercise) are the drug of choice.”
        “Health (not being number 1, or the skinniest, or the one with the biggest muscles) is the goal of choice.”
        May we help the polar bears survive. Thank you for your thoughts,

  6. Anonymous

    Beekeeper leaves bees in natural state for happy comb construction; homo sapiens constructs pyramid-cage to observe microscopic cells in natural state? ( In either case, shape is essential to vitality and furtherance of life. Even more interesting, the soap-bubble hexagonal arrays you mention have microbiology crossover appeal: One can easily understand how such coincidences (the hexagon’s “simple beginnings” = what’s necessary to minimize a unit’s mechanical energy in order to maximize distribution of energy across a multiplicity) could be susceptible to reductionism (“GREAT FIRST CAUSE”). Makes for a great story! Which is how myths endure… How I wish my high-school geometry teacher might’ve woven a little biology into rudimentary equation-making — marvelous sets of *experimentally testable* stories behind natural architecture. Nothing wrong with telling ourselves stories; we just need to know how to tell the difference.

    1. David George Haskell Post author

      Great links. Thank you.

      Biology + geometry = interesting combo.

      Myths persist because they make good stories, yes, but also sometimes because they convey something of utility to the time and place in which they were generated: either useful to the ruling classes (stories to keep the populace in line) or useful to everyone (helpful rules about life, etc). We also need to remember that sometimes we cannot tell the difference.

  7. Pingback: Nested sets | Ramble

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