Engineers Have a Lot to Learn from Bees About Design

Honey bees are skilled architects — even when limited by space constraints.

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Michael Smith/Cornell

ITHACA, N.Y. – Instead of using high-performance computers with 3D printers for the best honeycomb designs, a new Cornell University study suggests bees themselves can provide a more efficient and adaptable strategy.

Hexagonal structures inspired by bee nests are widely used to build everything from airplane wings, boats, and cars, to skis, snowboards, packaging and acoustic dampening materials.

Challenges arise when space constraints or repairs require engineers to keep a structure mechanically strong when linking together industrial honeycomb panels that each have cells of different sizes.

The new study finds that honey bees are skilled architects who plan ahead and create irregular-shaped cells and a variety of angles to bridge together uniform lattices when limited space constrains them.

Special imaging of natural honeycombs and computer modeling revealed that worker bees will change the tilt, size and geometric shapes of cells to meet different building challenges, according to the paper.

“In this fundamental study, we looked at a naturally evolved system which solves similar challenges in a near-optimal manner,” said Kirstin Petersen, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering in the College of Engineering and a co-author of the paper.

“Understanding how evolution can lead to these organisms that have architectural tricks gives us insights into how you can build structures that are multipurpose, strong, and resilient to different environmental perturbations,” said first author Michael L. Smith, assistant professor of biological sciences at Auburn University.

Sometimes the bees will switch from building one type of cell to the other, but they make that change gradually, over multiple cells, which suggests they are thinking ahead, Petersen said.

In the study, Smith set up 12 colonies in the field with frames that lacked the usual wax and wire inside, so the bees could build natural honeycombs without guides. At the end of the season, the researchers took specially-lit images and wrote a custom software to identify, sort and measure the vertices, angles, sizes and geometries of thousands of cells.

More than 200 years ago, Swiss entomologist Francoise Huber suggested that bees might use intermediate cells to merge a honeycomb together, but he lacked the modern tools to measure thousands of cells and validate his idea.

“It really required these tools to rigorously show that,” Smith said. “So, it’s not surprising that no one has done this before.”

In future work, the researchers may explore if honeycombs are optimized for mechanical strength and test the breadth of the bee’s architectural repertoire.

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