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Natural History

Hex wax

Hex wax

Stephan Reebs

The precise, hexagonal cells of honeybee combs may conjure up visions of bees busily measuring lengths and angles. But a group of entomologists led by Christian W.W. Pirk of the University of Wurzburg in Germany recently duplicated the bees’ efforts, and found that the process is direct and simple. Wax melts when heated. When wax cylinders are packed together as tightly as possible and then heated, the interstices fill up spontaneously and the cylinders become six-sided. In the case of the honeycombs, the worker bees secrete small flakes of wax and probably surround themselves with the flakes to make the cylinders. Their own metabolism then raises the temperature to 104 degrees Fahrenheit, enough to melt the cylinders into hexagonal tubes. The bees’ final touch is to add silk, which prevents the combs from melting further. (“Honeybee combs: Construction through a liquid equilibrium process?” Naturwissenschaften 91:350-53, July 2004)

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