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Brilliant builder-bees!

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Published: 7 September 2020 (GMT+10)
2020 © Sugarbag Bees, Tim Heardstingless-honeybee
Tetragonula carbonaria is a small stingless honeybee know to create complex spiral shaped brood combs.

Small, stingless bees of the species Tetragonula carbonaria, from Southeast Asia and Australia, are known to build nests with brood combs having the most ‘bee-autiful’, three-dimensional spiral shapes. These complex structures consist of four basic designs, stacked in 10–20 layers per nest: 1) bullseye-targets, 2) spirals, 3) double spirals, and 4) disordered terraces. Worker bees have been observed to construct new cells located at the edges of each expanding comb. The queen bee then lays an egg in each cell, which is provisioned with honey before it is closed, then the whole process is repeated. The results are some of the most complex designs for honeycombs known in the bee ‘kingdom’.

Scientists studying these beehive structures have recently tried to explain what is going on. However, these clever researchers have allowed their evolutionary presuppositions to lead them to unwarranted conclusions about how these busy bees construct their beehives.1

Comparing honeycombs to crystals

The analogy they chose is that of crystal growth, which is a well understood process. Crystals form when molecules cluster together according to their inherent properties (including positively and negatively charged parts of the molecules). These form ordered, repeating lattice structures, which grow outward from a growing point. There can be more than one growing point, or nucleation site, which form growth fronts of the crystal. Each molecular unit then builds on the next, like bricks in a wall. Depending on the chemical nature of each unit, and random forces at play, different, ordered shapes will result.

This all happens in what is termed an ‘excitable medium’,2 in which forces are jostling, freely moving molecular units. These come together via electrostatic attraction, to form larger, more complex units. These continue to grow, until the medium is used up, the energy of the system decreases sufficiently, or there is no more room to grow.

Researchers have modelled these crystal growth systems mathematically to show how complex shapes can form over time due to small, simple variations. It has been observed that crystal growth looks very similar to the beehive structures seen in the nests of T. carbonaria. And because these beehives ‘look’ like crystals, the scientists explain them in terms of crystal growth. (Note, however, that growth of pretty crystals does not prove that biological organization can arise spontaneously).

2020 © Sugarbag Bees, Tim HeardBrood-combs
Brood combs are known to come in four basic plans (left to right), 1) ‘bulls-eye’, 2) spiral, 3) double spiral, 4) disordered terraces.

Not so simple

However, the ‘fly in the ointment’, or ‘bee in the honey’ for this argument is that bees are not like simple crystal units. Rather, they are like architects who build in a manner that superficially resembles the growth of crystals. The researchers showed how the bees follow ‘simple’ geometric rules, like that which governs crystal growth. The scientists found that the bees followed a ‘rudimentary’ algorithm: when a new brood-cell is required, 1) it is constructed at the comb growth front, 2) and placed slightly higher than its neighbours. Alternatively, 3) a new cell is built on top of an older cell, on the condition that it is on the same level as other cells in the nest. What results are constructions of complex shapes. They likened the bees to an excitable media, jostling around using up the raw materials.

However, the mathematics describing these ‘simple’ systems are themselves far from simple—judging by the researchers’ equations and computer code needed to generate similar growth patterns in their computer models.1 Furthermore, the ‘simplicity’ ends there. Unlike crystal growth, much information processing is required for a bee to produce and position wax-material at the right place and at the right time,3 to form cells of the specific size and shape in the correct location. The researchers admit:

“…bee behaviour is determined by something: pressure measurements, chemical measurements or dimension/flatness measurements. Bees sense something in their environment, make some sort of computations and then do something… honeybees seem to use their body parts for measuring distances when building the comb…” (my emphases).1

The question is, how exactly do these bees behave in their beehive? Obviously the bees are doing something, but what, and how do they decide? Crystals don’t do any of this. Rather, complex information processing systems are required to follow and interpret rules, enabling the bees to perform their complex, specified tasks. And yet, all this amazing processing goes on in a tiny brain, no bigger than a pinhead!

Empty evolutionary speculation

Do the researchers give glory to the Creator for this marvellous and complex bee behaviour? No, they turn instead to evolutionary speculation:

“It is then possible to hypothesize that, during the radiation [diversification from a supposed ancestor] of the genus Tetragonula, the genetic changes through evolution have led to the parameters affecting our model… so that they produce different patterns of comb building…”1

Evolution is a false belief that anything is possible given enough time. However, it is far better ‘to hypothesize that’ the comb building behaviour of Tetragonula bees was programmed into their DNA by their Creator—but the researchers don’t even consider that possibility. Instead they say:

“…what the mathematics tells us is that the processes that drive atoms or molecules to aggregate as a crystal have the same mathematical structure as the processes that drive bees when making their bee comb…”1

Another science writer offered this speculation:

“It may be unwise to attempt to explain the adaptive significance of why this form may have evolved… Perhaps, it is just the outcome of some random behavior or perhaps it is adaptive.”4

That’s a lot of empty, evolutionary speculation. Although the researchers have discovered and brilliantly described the mathematical rules the bees follow, it is insufficient to account for the bees’ physical ability to produce complex hive structures. Bees cannot be reduced in their behaviour to crystals and molecular forces. What is required is all the staggering processing power and biological engineering that was mentioned earlier. The inference to the best explanation is that the bees are designed to do what they do—and what they do, they do well. 

Conclusion

The researchers rightly conclude that bees are not working from some ‘master plan’, rather an internal, localized plan, and they are also affected by what their neighbours are doing. But that doesn’t explain how each bee or its neighbour knows what to do and how to respond. That requires an amazing complex of pre-programed genetic information—plus processing power (of the bee’s tiny brain) and specified, complex machinery in the bee’s body to carry out the instructions written in its genes. Darwinian evolution has yet to explain any of this. Rather, what is required is a Master Programmer and Engineer to put it all together. Only the Bible explains that! Creation required a Creator and the amazing bee-behaviour of these busy bees building their beautiful beehives is further testament to that fact.

References and notes

  1. Cardoso, S.S.S, The bee Tetragonula builds its comb like a crystal, J. R. Soc. Interface 17:20200187, 22 July 2020 | doi.org/10.1098/rsif.2020.0187. Return to text.
  2. This is characteristic of a large class of systems in physics, chemistry and biology and has been applied to collective bee behaviour. Return to text.
  3. Worker bees secrete wax from abdominal glands, then combine it with plant resin to produce a tough material called cerumen which is used to build wax cells. Return to text.
  4. Specktor, B., Nobody knows why these bees built a spiral nest, livescience.com, 22 January 2018; accessed 30 July 2020. Return to text.

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Readers’ comments

Paul R.
Ah yes , the bee ..... In all of it's varieties around the world - from solitary ,to semi-social to a fully social integrated unit .. Not only do they show wonderful discrete design ,but also wonderfully discrete behaviours !! Their diversities for their roles in pollinating soooo many flowering plants is mind-boggling !!! Without the role of bees, mankinds' existence would be very tenuous - our worldwide food production hinges on the necessary work of these creatures !! If you want to try and "explain" their existence through some obscure and highly erroneous thought pattern called "evolution" , you're just not going to fully appreciate the minute intracacies these insects possess - unworkable hypotheses, and flights of fancy fall far short of the level of design that the Creator of the Universe put into their genes,for their work on planet Earth ..
WR B.
You mentioned that they might use body parts for measuring. Has anyone measured all of the structures of each genus's body? Each may differ in some unique place, and this differs the pattern that the unit cell is connected and constructed with. When men built pyramids and each pyramid stone was 3 arm lengths long, and 8 hand spans tall, if a person with a long arm and short hand, or a person with a short arm and large hands determined the stone's dimensions they would produce different shaped pyramid stones. Maybe selective pressures elsewhere have a secondary effect on the tools of building honeycomb. Gavin's cleverness with vocabulary did not arise from evolution, but a designer made brain learned some clever tricks of grammar construction. If Bees can not "learn", then we need to learn to recognize building clues in the bee's construction apparatus.
Philip Bell
Your question is an interesting one and would require considerable 'paper research', perhaps something you would be interested in doing.

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