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Natural Engineering in the Lifestyle of Honey Bees

Photo credit: Eric Hedin.

A week ago, my wife came in and announced, “There’s a scary-looking bees’ nest in the lilac bush!” Wasps routinely try to build nests around our house, so I was prepared for the worst when I went out to investigate. What I found was a basketball-sized cluster of honey bees — a “swarm.” There was no nest, only a living ball of thousands of bees hanging from a branch. 

I’ve never done any beekeeping, but fortunately, we have some friends who do. We had no idea, but apparently a swarm of bees in May on an easily accessible branch is something to get excited about! Soon, our beekeeper friends rolled up in their pickup truck. One pulled on jacket and bee-proof bonnet, set a large container (a portable hive box) on top of a stepladder underneath the swarm, took hold of the branch, and shook it. The swarm of bees, all festooned together, fell in a clump into the box. Or, rather, most of them did. Hundreds of them draped over the sides, which our undaunted friend scooped into the box (with gloved hands), while hundreds more buzzed around. The couple who came kept reassuring us, “They’re not going to sting because they’re focused on staying with the queen.” I learned that the queen bee’s presence is of utmost importance for the thousands of others.

Thanks for the Bees

Our friends extended thanks for the bees, then went home, while we went inside for a belated supper. The next day, I saw a smaller swarm around a branch in the same lilac bush. Here’s the interesting thing. Our friends said that they didn’t think they had captured the queen since the bees were acting agitated, so they came right back over to recover the remaining small swarm. When they added it to the hive with the bulk of the bees, all of them settled down right away. The queen had come home.

Here was a fascinating example of a finely tuned aspect of living organisms that was surely worth further investigation. A trip to the university library and online research quickly yielded multiple sources of information about honey bees from specialists of all types. As I’ve read up on bee behavior and their life cycles, a striking picture appears of ingenious design in living systems.

Natural Engineering

A recent research article reported on the use of x-ray microscopy to provide three-dimensional, time-resolved details on how bees manufacture their iconic honeycomb structure. Several observations from the authors are worth mentioning:1

Honeycomb is one of nature’s best engineered structures.

Engineers recognize design, and never has good human-level engineering come about by anything other than intelligent design.

Honeycomb is a structure that has both fascinated and inspired humans for millennia, including serving as inspiration for many engineering structures. It is a multifunctional structure that acts as a store for food, a nursery for developing honey bee brood, and a physical structure upon which honey bees live. It is constructed of wax produced by bees in specialized glands in their abdomen. Wax is an expensive commodity and so comb construction can be quite costly for a honey bee colony. Honeycomb is constructed in such a way to minimize wax consumption.

Honeycomb construction is optimized to serve multiple purposes for the bee colony, subject to the constraint of material and labor costs. Sounds like the bees are a responsible engineering firm.

The ability of bees to “know” how to manufacture the structurally optimal hexagonal-packed honeycomb is even more amazing when one considers that the worker bees constructing it hatched less than three weeks earlier.

While not a perfect analogy, a colony of bees may be compared to a multicellular living organism. Each member of the colony seems to know what to do at each stage of its life for the good of the whole “organism.” An isolated bee will soon die, even if supplied with nutrients, suggesting that it is designed to function as part of the whole. 

Arranged by a Designer

We could say that the whole honey bee colony is greater than just the sum of its individual members. This state of affairs usually arises when the individual components of a complex system are specifically arranged by a designer to accomplish a predetermined purpose. Consider any complex electrical or mechanical device. All of the components of my laptop would make a fascinating pile if laid out on a table; but they’re even more fascinating when assembled and functioning together as a whole, according to their designed purpose.

A professor of entomology at Iowa State University, studying the behavior of honey bee colonies, writes:

Each bee appears to specialize, for a time at least, on a particular job. Thinking about this, you may decide that a single bee is somewhat like a single cell of your own body. The work force in charge of a particular job, such as feeding larvae, would then correspond to one of your tissues. And if you follow this analogy further, you may conclude that a colony of honey bees is like an organism — a superorganism.2

Aspects of an organism that manifest in a honey bee colony include caring for developing larvae, securing and processing nutrients (similar to metabolism), tending the queen (whose presence coordinates the behavior of the entire colony), guarding the hive and patrolling for intruders (similar to an immune system), temperature regulation (fanning their wings to cool the hive, clustering and vibrating their wings to heat the cluster of bees), growth of the whole colony in terms of the number of individual bees, reproduction of the “organism” (resulting in the phenomenon of the honey bee swarm), coordination of activities mediated by a variety of communication channels, and a sense of purpose.

Observers of complex, functional systems, whether nonliving or alive, rationally conclude that, “If something works, it’s not happening by accident.”3

Beyond Mere Survival

The honey bee colony “works” and accomplishes a purpose beyond mere survival. It diligently stockpiles nectar which its workers convert to honey in amounts exceeding its needs.4 Honey’s unique ingredients give it value as a food source for humans that has been recognized for millennia.

The high total sugar concentration [primarily fructose and glucose, with a smaller amount of sucrose] in honey is beneficial in that most yeasts cannot ferment in it. Also, together with one other constituent (glucose oxidase), it gives the honey antimicrobial properties, and it can be stored safe from spoilage…5

Beyond the direct production of honey for our use, the role of honeybees as pollinators is of critical importance in agriculture:

Bees and other pollinators play a critical role in our food production system. More than 100 U.S. grown crops rely on pollinators. The added revenue to crop production from pollinators is valued at $18 billion.6

Continuing to ponder bee behavior, comments made by Professor Richard Trump of Iowa State University are instructive:

If a honey bee, with her microbrain, knows what she is doing, this is cause for wonder. If she does not know — if she is fully programmed by those sub-microchips of DNA that come to her as a legacy from her ancestors — this is even greater cause for wonder. It is incredible.7

Here are a couple of examples that may cause us to wonder how bees know how to do what they do. Researchers have found that bees possess an internal organic timer, which in conjunction with an awareness of the rotation of the Earth, allows them to efficiently time their foraging activities to arrive at flowers when pollen sources are at their peak. 

The famous “waggle dance” that a scout bee performs back at the hive after discovering a food source communicates to other bees (by touching, since the inside of the hive is dark) both the distance and the direction of the food in relation to the current position of the sun. Bee keepers have found that if they reorient the honeycomb on which the bee is dancing, the undaunted bee will adapt its dance so that it still correctly communicates the proper direction to the food source.8 Sometimes the dancing scout bee will continue its dance for more than an hour, and over this time, the position of the sun has changed. In response, the bee will compensate for the sun’s movement across the sky by gradually adjusting the angle of its dance.

How Many Lines of Code?

If humans tried to duplicate the capabilities of honey bees by building and programming mini-robots that could fly, how many lines of code would have to be written and executed to make an artificial bee? We can also ask what the likelihood is of all this coded information arising from unguided natural processes. Someone committed to the evolutionary paradigm might answer that any genomic changes that offered a survival advantage would’ve been locked in by the ratchet-like mechanism of natural selection until primitive bee ancestors evolved into the complex, coordinated colonies of honey bees seen today.

Systems engineer Steve Laufmann, co-author of the recent book Your Designed Body, addresses the engineering hurdles facing any proposed evolutionary explanation:

…when evolutionary biologists hypothesize about small and apparently straightforward changes to a species during its evolutionary history, the biologists tend to skip both the thorny engineering details of what’s necessary to make the system work, and the bigger picture of how any system change has to be integrated with all the other systems it interacts with. The result is that biologists tend to massively underestimate the complexities involved.

And here’s the rub: if they’ve massively underestimated those complexities, then they’ve massively underestimated the challenge for any gradual, materialistic evolutionary process to build up these systems a little bit at a time while maintaining coherence and function. 

pp. 324-325

The difficulties outlined by Laufmann are in the context of the human body, but they apply equally well to the complexities of a colony of honey bees. Bee keepers are all too aware of the precarious balance between life and death throughout a single year for a colony of bees. Engineers know that making changes to a delicately balanced complex functional system, even small ones, have a way of upsetting the balance — not towards better function but towards failure and collapse.

Honey bees offer us a glimpse of a remarkable living system involving interdependent, communally cooperative behavior. In some ways, they outshine the best in conscious human attempts to build a thriving society.  Perhaps we can learn a thing or two from the humble bee.


  1. Rahul Franklin, Sridhar Niverty, Brock A. Harpur, Nikhilesh Chawla, “Unraveling the Mechanisms of the Apis mellifera Honeycomb Construction by 4D X-ray Microscopy,” Advanced Materials, Vol. 34, Issue 42, Oct. 20, 2022.
  2. Richard F. Trump, Bees and Their Keepers, (Iowa State University Press, Ames, IA, 1987).
  3. https://evolutionnews.org/2021/12/caltech-finds-amazing-role-for-noncoding-dna/
  4. How do bees make honey? From the hive to the pot | Live Science (accessed 5/28/2023).
  5. Diana Sammataro and Alphonse Avitabile, Beekeeper’s Handbook, (New York: Cornell University Press, 1998). 
  6. pollinator_week_factsheet_06.25.2020 (usda.gov).
  7. Trump, Bees and Their Keepers, p. 78.
  8. Trump, Bees and Their Keepers, pp. 80-1.