The axis of honeycomb cells are always quasi-horizontal, and the non-angled rows of honeycomb cells are always horizontally (not vertically) aligned. Thus, each cell has two vertical walls, with “floors” and “ceilings” composed of two angled walls. The cells slope slightly upwards, between 9 and 14 degrees, towards the open ends.

There are two possible explanations for the reason that honeycomb is composed of hexagons, rather than any other shape. One, given by Jan Broztec, is that the hexagon tiles the plane with minimal surface. Thus a hexagonal structure uses the least material to create a lattice of cells within a given volume. Another, given by D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson, is that the shape simply results from the process of individual bees putting cells together: somewhat analogous to the boundary shapes created in a field of soap bubbles. In support of this he notes that queen cells, which are constructed singly, are irregular and lumpy with no apparent attempt at efficiency.

The closed ends of the honeycomb cells are also an example of geometric efficiency, albeit three-dimensional and little-noticed. The ends are trihedral (i.e., composed of three planes) sections of rhombic dodecahedra, with the dihedral angles of all adjacent surfaces measuring 120°, the angle that minimizes surface area for a given volume. (The angle formed by the edges at the pyramidal apex is approximately 109° 28′ 16″ (= 180° – arccos(1/3)).)

A computer-generated model of a honeycomb cell, showing a hexagonal tube terminating in three equal rhombuses that meet at a point on the axis of the cell
The three-dimensional geometry of a honeycomb cell.

The shape of the cells is such that two opposing honeycomb layers nest into each other, with each facet of the closed ends being shared by opposing cells.

A computer-generated model of two opposing honeycomb layers, showing three cells on one layer fitting together with three cells on the opposing layer
Opposing layers of honeycomb cells fit together.

Individual cells do not, of course, show this geometric perfection: in a regular comb, there are deviations of a few percent from the “perfect” hexagonal shape. In transition zones between the larger cells of drone comb and the smaller cells of worker comb, or when the bees encounter obstacles, the shapes are often distorted. Cells are also angled up about 13° from horizontal to prevent honey from dripping out.

In 1965, László Fejes Tóth discovered that the trihedral pyramidal shape (which is composed of three rhombi) used by the honeybee is not the theoretically optimal three-dimensional geometry. A cell end composed of two hexagons and two smaller rhombuses would actually be .035% (or approximately 1 part per 2850) more efficient. This difference is too minute to measure on an actual honeycomb, and irrelevant to the hive economy in terms of efficient use of wax, considering that wild comb varies considerably from any mathematical notion of “ideal” geometry.

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