Can Bees Do Math?

Can Bees Do Math?

June 4, 2014

Image licensed by Ingram Publishing.

At a local festival, we spotted a bee keeper showing off her honey and a hive. We were fascinated by the six-sided, hexagonal shapes of the honeycomb. It got us wondering, do bees know geometry?

Scientists recently figured out that the cells of the honeycomb start as circles. The circular shape maximizes the area with the least amount of surface.

Want proof ? Take two pipe cleaners of the same length and form one into a circle and the other into a square. See how many pony beads fit inside. You should be able to fit more into the circle than into the square.

Nature is a very efficient mathematician. When the circular cells merge, they form the equilateral hexagons we recognize as honeycomb.

We decided to see if we could replicate this at home with candy. We grabbed some “Dots” with circular bases and squashed them together in the mouth of a sports bottle. Yup, they created a hexagon! The kids wanted to try with Life Savers Gummies, too…I think they just wanted more squishy candy to eat.

Can Bees Do Math?

Photo credit: Candace Lindemann

To distract them from the candy and get them moving, we investigated bee dances. Not only do bees have moves like Jagger, their “waggle dance” (seriously, that is the actual scientific name) signals direction and distance of nectar sources to their hive mates. NOVA has a feature where you can try to interpret actual bees doing their dances.

The center line of the figure-eight pattern points in the direction of the flower. The speed with which the dance is done communicates distance–the quicker the dance (bees can waggle 15 times per second), the closer the food source.

Kids can hide a flower picture and do a “waggle dance” to communicate the direction and distance to friends and siblings.

Now, buzz off, little bees, and try to find that yummy flower!


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