Bees are teaching engineers optimal honeycomb design techniques

Hexagonal structures are very strong and commonly used in building multiple products in a wide range of industries. For example, hexagonal structures are used to construct airplane wings, boats, cars, skis, packaging, and acoustic dampening materials, among other items. However, when building with structures of this type, challenges can arise when space constraints or repairs require builders to keep the structure mechanically strong while linking industrial honeycomb panels with cells of different sizes.Researchers believe that bees could provide a more efficient and adaptable strategy. A new study has found that bees are skilled architects planning ahead and creating irregular-shaped cells at various angles that bridge together uniform lattices when limited space constrains them. Researchers used special techniques for imaging honeycombs and computer modeling to reveal that worker bees change the tilt, size, and geometric shape of cells to meet challenges they encounter while building.

Kirstin Peterson, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at Cornell University and paper co-author, said in the fundamental study the team looked at a naturally evolved system that solves challenges in a near-optimal matter. Project researchers say that understanding how evolution led to the organisms utilizing these architectural tricks gives us insight into how to build multipurpose, strong, and resilient structures.

Bees build two types of honeycomb cells, including small cells for rearing worker bees and larger cells for rearing drones. One challenge bees encounter during their building is linking lattices made of smaller cells with larger ones because their geometry doesn't allow for a seamless fit. The bees employ other shapes, including pentagons or heptagons, pulling together panels of perfectly hexagonal-shaped drone and worker cells.

The bees are also known to build cells of irregular sizes and sometimes combine multiple types of irregular cells. The researchers found these irregularities and particular combinations of irregular cells occur more often than expected if it was a simple chance. Peterson says the bees will switch from building one type of cell to another, but gradually change over multiple cells suggesting they are thinking ahead. In future work, the researchers might explore if honeycombs are optimized for mechanical strength and to test more of the architectural repertoire of bees.