Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Happy thought

Our recent long stretch of hot, sunny weather was welcomed by more than the pale, sun-deprived Irish people. It was a blessing too for the honeybees. A dreary, cold winter so weakened the colonies that beekeepers were worried their hives wouldn't survive. But three weeks of blazing sun got the surviving queens into action. The air was abuzz with nuptial flights. Apparently, hives are flourishing.

Our young friends Rachel and Jindra have added beekeeping to their list of agricultural endeavors. Rachel gave me a piece of comb on her last visit, dripping with honey. The honey was deelish, but it was the comb that won me over. All those perfectly architected hexagonal cells. Like something punched out by an industrial die.

Johannes Kepler considered the comb in his wonderful little book The Six-Cornered Snowflake. Why, he asks, do snowflakes fall with hexagonal symmetry? He never quite arrives at an answer, but along the way he does figure out why honeycombs are hexagonal: Hexagonal cells maximize volume with a minimum of wax. The bees are mathematicians.

Well, not exactly. But it is the built-in genius of natural selection that it can solve complex problems by trial and error-- and build the solutions into the genes of bees. Computer algorithms can do the same thing, so we know it's not magic. Time, inheritance, chance, and survival. Voila! Thousands of bees working in unison to construct a stunning warehouse of wax.

Bees are born with a knowledge human mathematicians must learn. GTCCATTGCTA. Spider orb-webs, bowerbird bowers, beaver dams: So much wonder from so simple a code! I hold the comb in my hand and I can't help but think of a rhyme from Robert Louis Stevenson's Child's Garden of Verses that my mother used to recite as if it were the wisdom she most dearly wanted to impart:

The world is so full of a number of things
I'm sure we should all be as happy as kings.