Pappus on the wisdom of bees

What follows is the preface to Pappus's work on isoperimetry. Zenodorus had earlier written a treatise on isoperimetry. The theorems which follow this preface attempt to prove that of all solid figures with a fixed surface area, the sphere has the greatest volume. Not surprisingly Pappus cannot achieve his aim but he does prove that the volume of the sphere is greater than that of any of the five regular solids with the same fixed surface area. The extract below is taken from Pappus's Mathematical Collection:-


It is of course to men that God has given the best and most perfect notion of wisdom in general and of mathematical science in particular, but a partial share in these things he allotted to some of the unreasoning animals as well. To men, as being endowed with reason, he vouchsafed that they should do everything in the light of reason and demonstration, but to the other animals, while denying them reason, he granted that each of them should, by virtue of a certain natural instinct, obtain just so much as is needful to support life. This instinct may be observed to exist in very many other species of living creatures, but most of all in bees. In the first place their orderliness and their submission to the queens who rule in their state are truly admirable, but much more admirable still is their emulation, the cleanliness they observe in the gathering of honey, and the forethought and housewifely care they devote to its custody.

Presumably because they know themselves to be entrusted with the task of bringing from the gods to the accomplished portion of mankind a share of ambrosia in this form, they do not think it proper to pour it carelessly on ground or wood or any other ugly and irregular material; but, first collecting the sweets of the most beautiful flowers which grow on the earth, they make from them, for the reception of the honey, the vessels which we call honeycombs, (with cells) all equal, similar and contiguous to one another, and hexagonal in form. And that they have contrived this by virtue of a certain geometrical forethought we may infer in this way.

They would necessarily think that the figures must be such as to be contiguous to one another, that is to say. to have their sides common, in order that no foreign matter could enter the interstices between them and so defile the purity of their produce. Now only three rectilinear figures would satisfy the condition, I mean regular figures which are equilateral and equiangular; for the bees would have none of the figures which are not uniform .... There being then three figures capable by themselves of exactly filling up the space about the same point, the bees by reason of their instinctive wisdom chose for the construction of the honeycomb the figure which has the most angles, because they conceived that it would contain more honey than either of the two others.

Bees, then, know just this fact which is of service to themselves, that the hexagon is greater than the square and the triangle and will hold more honey for the same expenditure of material used in constructing the different figures. We, however, claiming as we do a greater share in wisdom than bees, will investigate a problem of still wider extent, namely, that, of all equilateral and equiangular plane figures having an equal perimeter, that which has the greater number of angles is always greater, and the greatest plane figure of all those which have a perimeter equal to that of the polygons is the circle.


JOC/EFR August 2006

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