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Apiological: mathematical speculations about bees (Part 2: Estimating nest volumes)

This is part 2 of a three-part series of mathematical speculations about bees. Part 1 looked at honeycomb geometry.

Honeybees scout for nesting sites in tree cavities and other nooks and crannies, and need to know whether a chamber is large enough to contain all the honey necessary to feed their colony throughout the winter. A volume of less than 10 litres would mean starvation for the whole colony, whereas 45 litres gives a high chance of survival. How are tiny honeybees able to estimate the capacity of these large enclosed spaces, which can be very irregular and have multiple chambers?

Apiological: mathematical speculations about bees (Part 1: Honeycomb geometry)

Bees have encouraged mathematical speculation for two millennia, since classical scholars tried to explain the geometrically appealing shape of honeycombs. How do bees tackle complex problems that humans would express mathematically? In this series we’ll explore three situations where understanding the maths could help explain the uncanny instincts of bees.

Honeycomb geometry

wild honeycomb

A curvy wild honeycomb.

Honeybees collect nectar from flowers and use it to produce honey, which they then store in honeycombs made of beeswax (in turn derived from honey). A question that has puzzled many inquiring minds across the ages is: why are honeycombs made of hexagonal cells?

The Roman scholar Varro, in his 1st century BC book-long poem De Agri Cultura (“On Agriculture”), briefly states

“Does not the chamber in the comb have six angles, the same number as the bee has feet? The geometricians prove that this hexagon inscribed in a circular figure encloses the greatest amount of space.”

Things I Made And Did

Since you’re here reading this, you probably know that on October 30th, Matt “Friend of the Site” Parker released his book, Things to Make and Do in the Fourth Dimension. If you’ve gone one further and read it, you might have seen the occasional reference to the website, makeanddo4d.com. If that website is the book’s DVD extras, this is the website’s extras. We’re going to peek behind the scenes and see how it all works. (Spoiler alert: the maths is powered by maths. It’s recursive maths, all the way down.)

Discovering integer sequences by dealing cards

card dealing

Let’s play a game:

  1. Imagine you have some playing cards. Of course if you actually have some cards you don’t need to imagine!
  2. Pick your favourite natural number $n$ and put a deck of $n$ cards in front of you. Then repeat the next step until the deck is empty.
  3. Take $2$ cards from the top of the deck and throw them away, or just take $1$ card from the top and throw it away. The choice is yours.

If you pick a small $n$, such as $n=3$, it’s pretty easy to see how this game is going to play out. Choosing to throw away $2$ cards the first time means you’re then forced to throw away $1$ card the next time, but only throwing away $1$ card the first time leaves you with a choice of what to throw away the next time. So for $n=3$ there are exactly $3$ different ways to play the game: throw $2$ then $1$, throw $1$ then $2$, or throw $1$ then $1$ then $1$.

Now, here comes the big question. How does the number of different ways to play this game depend on the size of the starting deck? Or in other words, what integer sequence $a_0$, $a_1$, $a_2$, $a_3$, $a_4$, … do we get if $a_n$ represents the number of different ways to play the game with a deck of $n$ cards? (We already know that $a_3=3$.)

Poetry in Motion

Phil Ramsden gave an excellent talk at the 2013 MathsJam conference, about a particularly mathematical form of poetry. We asked him to write an article explaining it in more detail.

Generals gathered in their masses,
Just like witches at black masses.

(Butler et al., “War Pigs”, Paranoid, 1970)

Brummie hard-rockers Black Sabbath have sometimes been derided for the way writer Geezer Butler rhymes “masses” with “masses”. But this is a little unfair. After all, Edward Lear used to do the same thing in his original limericks. For example:

There was an Old Man with a beard,
Who said, “It is just as I feared!-
Two Owls and a Hen,
Four Larks and a Wren,
Have all built their nests in my beard!”

(“There was an Old Man with a beard”, from Lear, E., A Book Of Nonsense, 1846.)

And actually, the practice goes back a lot longer than that. The sestina is a poetic form that dates from the 12th century, and was later perfected by Dante. It works entirely on “whole-word” rhymes.