The Wise Work of the Bees

A story is told of some strangers who went to the home of Heraclitus, an ancient Greek philosopher well known even in his own day for his teachings on the nature of change and reality. The strangers arrived only to find Heraclitus in the kitchen warming himself by the furnace. Realizing that his visitors were hesitant to join him in such humble surroundings, Heraclitus bid them not to be afraid to enter. For, as he told them, the gods are present even in the kitchen.

Aristotle recounts this story towards the beginning of his On the Parts of Animals. His purpose in so doing is to encourage his readers in their philosophical study of all animals, especially the humbler and somewhat repulsive ones. As he puts it, “we should venture on the study of every kind of animal without distaste; for each and all will reveal to us something natural and something beautiful.” Aristotle notably points out that those who deign to examine the humbler animals with childlike wonder will be rewarded, in turn, with the great delight which accompanies an intellectual glimpse of God’s eternal wisdom.

To my knowledge, no one in recent times has more perfectly embodied the Aristotelian ideal on these matters than the French entomologist, Jean-Henri Casimir Fabre (1823-1915). Unlike many of his contemporaries, Fabre knew that expertise in entomology could not be gleaned merely by reading about bugs, dissecting them, and watching their remains as they float in some sort of chemical preservative. Because of this, Fabre spent nothing short of decades sitting motionless as he observed his living subjects doing the things which bugs do in their native habitats and inquiring, as only a philosopher can, into the most fundamental causes of the instinctual behaviors of these same subjects. Moreover, with the pen of a poet, Fabre beautifully, articulately, and with infectious childlike wonder records the ways of life proper to creatures such as the hunting wasp, the dung beetle, the praying mantis, the ant, the bee, and myriads more. In translation, one can find many of his essays on bugs and other natural things under the titles, The Insect World of J. Henri Fabre, The Wonder Book of Plants, and The Story Book of Science.

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In The Story Book of Science, Fabre spends several chapters recounting what life is like for the honeybees. After detailing the socio-political structure of the hive, Fabre turns to a brief consideration of how bees produce or, better, “sweat” the wax which they utilize as the building material for their honeycombs. This, then, leads Fabre to reflect on the geometrical wisdom manifested in the construction of the honeycomb itself.

More specifically, Fabre observes that the bees make their honeycombs out of contiguous three-dimensional cells, with no intervening spaces, and each of the cells has the shape of a regular hexagon (i.e., a plane figure contained by six equal sides and having six equal angles). Why, though, do the bees employ the regular hexagon and not some other shape in the making of their honeycombs? The reason is because, out of the unlimited number of different kinds of plane figures, the regular hexagon alone enables the bees to store the largest amount of honey, in the least amount of space, while using the least amount of wax.

To see something of this truth, let’s briefly consider the alternatives which the bees do not employ. First, they do not make their honeycombs out of touching cylinders. For, even though each individual cylinder would hold a good deal of honey, this shape is not economical in terms of its use of space. Indeed, it is clearly impossible to make a honeycomb out of touching cylinders without creating many wasted intervening spaces. Second, the bees do not use either triangular or quadrilateral cells. Again, the reason is economics. While neither of these shapes leaves wasted intervening spaces, triangular cells would require far more wax than their hexagonal counterparts, and quadrilateral cells would hold less honey than hexagonal cells. Third, and finally, the bees do not utilize the shape of any regular polygon with more than six sides. For example, they never build their honeycombs out of regular octagons or decagons. Why not? Because, as the geometer knows, it is impossible to make a structure out of any regular shape with more sides than the hexagon without also creating many wasted intervening spaces.

Thus, we see that the bees use nothing other than regular hexagons when constructing their honeycombs simply because, out of infinite kinds of plane figures, it is the best one for the job. The amazing thing about this is that if a master geometer were tasked with designing a wax structure to store the largest amount of honey, in the least amount of space, while using the least amount of wax, he could not do any better in his design than the bees do in theirs. What this tells us, then, is that the bees, in making their honeycombs, are acting wisely, or more specifically, they are acting like master geometers.

Since they do not possess intellects, though, the bees must be acting according to a wisdom or a geometry which is not their own. As Fabre puts it, “Bees are profound geometricians because they work, unconsciously, under the inspiration of the sublime Geometrician.” This “sublime Geometrician,” of course, is God Himself. In making the bees to be what they are, God gives to them a certain inborn know-how which is a principle of their instinctive behavior. In so doing, God causes the bees to share in a finite and unconscious way in His eternal wisdom. And it is this share in God’s eternal wisdom which the bees, in turn, manifest to those of us who would take the time to watch and wonder about the acts of these humble creatures of God. Knowing this, let us bear in mind the sapiential observation of the twentieth-century Thomist, Charles De Koninck, with which Fabre would undoubtedly agree: “Indifference to the phenomena of sun and moon, to bugs and elephants, proves the absence of philosophic temperament.”

Editor’s note: Pictured above is a detail from “Still Life Study of Insects” painted by Jan van Kessel in 1653. 


  • David Arias

    David Arias is a husband, father of thirteen, and a professor of philosophy at Our Lady of Guadalupe Seminary in Denton, NE. He has a Ph.D. in philosophy from the Center for Thomistic Studies at the University of St. Thomas (Houston).

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