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Bees and wasps use the same nest-building tricks despite independent evolution

Scientists have discovered that bees and wasps have independently developed remarkably similar architectural techniques, despite their diverse evolutionary backgrounds and the distinct materials they use for construction. 

The two species share a common practice: the creation of hexagonal cells. But what’s even more intriguing is their consistent approach to solve a complex building challenge that arises when a perfect hexagonal structure can’t be achieved.

Similar to how sharks and whales have developed analogous body structures to adapt to their aquatic environments, bees and wasps construct hexagonal cells for their nests. This configuration offers an optimal balance of strength and storage area while reducing the need for construction materials. 

However, bees and wasps can’t always build a perfect hexagonal cell. This is especially true when both species need to accommodate differently-sized hexagons within a single comb sheet.

Studying bees and wasps

Certain honey bee and wasp species construct two distinct hexagon sizes: smaller cells house workers, while the larger ones accommodate drones and queens. This discrepancy in cell sizes brings forth a significant architectural issue. How can these two different-sized hexagons fit seamlessly within a single comb sheet?

To investigate, researchers gathered nest images from around the world that portrayed both worker and reproductive cells within the same comb. The team was led by Dr. Michael L. Smith, assistant professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Auburn University and affiliate member of the Max Planck Institute for Animal Behavior.

Applying custom-built software, the experts meticulously extracted per-cell measurements from an impressive number of cells, reaching 22,745. 

What the researchers discovered 

The study revealed that in species like Metapolybia mesoamerica, there was no architectural conundrum to unravel. Both worker and reproductive cells were identically sized. By contrast, species like Apis andreniformis presented a significant challenge, with reproductive cells being up to 2.7 times larger than worker cells.

Through this investigation across ten species, Smith and his team found a common pattern: as the discrepancy between worker and reproductive cells grew, the insects began to construct non-hexagonal cells. These were mainly 5- and 7-sided cells built in pairs, with the 5-sided cell created on the worker side, and the 7-sided cell on the reproductive side. 

The pattern appeared across all bee and wasp species that had to deal with cell size variation. This observation was fascinating, given these insects’ renowned affinity for hexagonal structures.

Bees and wasps came to the same conclusion 

The team developed a mathematical model that predicts the number of non-hexagonal cells to incorporate, building upon their findings on the cell-size difference.

The researchers found that some species consistently outperformed the model’s expectations by incorporating intermediate-sized cells into the transition region, reducing the need for non-hexagonal cells.

Despite an evolutionary separation of over 179 million years, bees and wasps appear to have independently arrived at the same architectural solution to handle this scalable issue. Even with distinct building materials and the independent origins of hexagonal cells, they all adopt the same constructional approach.

Striking results

“Once we were able to plot out all the data, the results were striking – you could see how the bees and wasps used intermediate-sized cells to make a gradual change, but also how consistently the non-hexagonal cells were arranged in the comb,” said Dr. Smith.

This study contributes to our understanding of how collective systems can build adaptive and resilient structures without centralized control. The construction of these combs doesn’t rely on a single “architect.” Instead, hundreds, or even thousands, of individual bees and wasps contribute to the final product.

The study, published in the journal PLOS Biology, was supported by the National Science Foundation, the German Research Foundation, a Packard Fellowship for Science and Engineering, and GETTYLABS.

More about bee nests

Bee nests are fascinating structures that bees build to house their colonies. They are intricate and efficient systems built for both the protection and nurturing of the hive’s members. Here’s a closer look at some of the features of bee nests:


Bees use wax, which they produce from glands in their abdomen, to build their nests. The most well-known structure inside a bee nest is the honeycomb, composed of hexagonal cells made of beeswax.


Honeycombs are a marvel of natural engineering. Each cell in a honeycomb is a perfect hexagon, a shape that allows for the most efficient use of space with the least amount of building material. Bees use the cells for a variety of purposes, such as storing honey and pollen, and raising their young.


Bee nests are highly organized structures. There are cells for worker bees, queen bees, and drones. The size and position of these cells differ based on their purpose. Worker bee cells are usually smaller, while queen cells are larger and often positioned at the bottom or edge of the comb.

Temperature control

Bee nests also have a remarkable system for temperature control. Worker bees control the temperature inside the hive by either fanning their wings to cool it down, or huddling together to generate heat.


Bee nests are designed with protection in mind. They often have a single entrance which makes it easier for the bees to defend against predators and intruders.


Depending on the species, bees build their nests in various locations. Some prefer hollow trees or cavities in rocks, while others may build in the ground. Some bee species even build their nests in human-made structures.

Each species of bee has its unique way of constructing and organizing its nest, and studying these methods gives scientists insight into their complex social structures and behaviors.


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