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A Comb-builder's Instruction Manual

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Honeycomb is a miracle of engineering: but how do the honeybees do it?

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The wax-made comb of the honeybee is a masterpiece of animal architecture. The regular, double-sided hexagonal structure is a near-optimal solution to storing food and housing larvae. The economy of the structure has been described and analysed across the centuries leading to speculation, but without conclusion, as to how such complex cells can be built and packed together so efficiently.

Honeycomb, while beautiful, is not perfect, and much is revealed by these imperfections. Irregularities are introduced through construction errors, compelled by surface irregularities, or may result from purposeful distortion such as when changing from worker to drone cells. Nonetheless the builders overcome these distortions and, within a short time, restore the regular hexagonal pattern. Honeybees are capable of building comb downwards, but also upwards and sideways; their method is clearly very flexible.

In this session I will explain my analysis of the bees methods, and resulting understanding as to how individual decisions regarding the placement, or removal, of each speck of wax combine to produce well-formed comb even when presented with complications.

Vince Gallo

Vince tends his 15-20 hives in Surrey within his garden and two out-apiaries; one of which is at a local school. The bees are kept both as a hobby, but also for research; the latter being a result of this retired software engineer deciding to avoid boredom by undertaking a PhD. His research topic concerns the use and construction of honeycomb and now, in the third year, the bees and comb are beginning to surrender some answers. Vince is treasurer and an active member of Reigate Beekeepers which provides ample opportunity to help other beekeepers, to assist the public as a swarm collector, as well as promoting the interests of bees by supporting the association at summer shows and giving talks at local groups and schools.

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