Margot McClean, of Rangi Ruru Girls School, asks :-

Why do bees make their honey holders as hexagonal arrays?

Simon Pollard, an entomologist at the canterbury Museum, responded.

The honeycomb is a marvel of bee engineering and Charles Darwin was quite right when he said that it is 'absolutely perfect in economising labour and wax'.

A vertical comb of six-sided or hexagonal cells is the best way to divide a surface into regions of equal area with the least total perimeter. Each wall in the honeycomb is part of two hexagonal tubes, and this means less wax is needed to build a wall of honey storage containers compared to, for example, cylindrical tubes. Of course, a wall of triangular or square containers can also share all walls, but hexagonal tubes still use less wax for the amount of honey they can store.

After a honey meal, young workers excrete tiny flecks of wax and other workers use this building material to assemble the honeycomb. While the honeycomb is being built, large numbers of bees cluster in the hive to keep the temperature at 35 degrees C, so the wax remains malleable for the builders. In effect, honey is turned into wax to make a honeycomb for storing honey.

Each honeycomb has two layers of cells placed back to back and each cell is angled slightly upwards from the horizontal, so the stored honey doesn't drip out. The back of each cell tapers to a point like the tip of a three-sided pencil and where they meet in the middle, is not tip to tip, but slightly offset. This allows the layers to interlock solidly together like the bottom of two egg cartons stacked together.

Buying honey that is still in the honeycomb is not only excellent honey, but it is a chance to see one of the most efficient pantries in nature.