Our Native Bees' Spirals Go Viral

The Australian Tetragonula bee genus is in the news – even making a ‘Royal’ appearance through a journal article just published in the Royal Society Interface.

Scientists are fascinated with this particular native stingless bee’s hive comb structure. Its wonderful spiral crystal shape is unique to bees and is becoming a source of fascination for entomologists around the world. (The B & B Highway stingless beehives are made by the Tetragonula.)

The journal article entitled: ‘The bee Tetragonula builds its comb like a crystal’, theorises that the Tetragonula Australian bee may be following the same rules that crystals use to grow. Rather than building honeycombs, they choose to build spiral staircases. Very ‘royal’ indeed!

As reported in Live Science and citing Australian expert, Dr Tim Heard, the bees’ spiral structures, called ‘brood combs’, feature many circular cells or egg chambers, built by a wax-secreting worker bee, provisioned with regurgitated food by a nurse bee, then filled with an egg by the queen herself. When one cell is done, workers move on to the next one, building outward and upward in a spiral pattern that can sometimes reach 20 stories tall.

The Tetragonula bee has even been described as the Frank Lloyd Wright of the insect world. The Royal Society study published on July 22nd this year says the spiral structure combs follow the same basic rules that cause crystals to grow up in a spiral pattern. Co-author Julyan Cartwright, a researcher at the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC) who studies mathematical patterns in nature, said that ‘each bee is basically following an algorithm’.

To investigate, the researchers modelled the construction of a spiral comb using an algorithm inspired by crystal growth. Each simulation started with a single brood cell. One by one, digital worker bees added new cells to the comb by following one of two simple rules: Bees could add a cell to the growth front — the edge of the comb where other bees had been laying cells — so long as their new cell was placed slightly higher than its neighbours; or, bees could build a new cell on top of an existing cell, so long as that cell was more or less level with its neighbouring cells.

With these restrictions in place, each new level of the comb had to be built a good distance away from the edge, giving each new level a smaller radius than the last. The higher a level, the smaller its radius. And so, with just these few simple rules, the spiral pattern emerged.

Another reason to celebrate the B & B Highway’s special native stingless bee!

To read the full journal article click here.