Some species of stingless bees make stunning honeycomb which resembles the molecular structure of crystals, scientists have discovered.
A series of images published as part of a scientific study into the hive structure of Tetragonula bees reveals they often have a distinct bullseye or spiral 3D appearance.
The same mathematical blueprint is followed by a colony of bees and also by the laws of physics, resulting in strikingly similar layouts.
Researchers from the University of Cambridge and the University of Granada in Spain combined to map out the unique hives.
Writing in their study, the researchers say: 'In Tetragonula nests, we find a variety of brood comb structures in three dimensions that can be classified into (a) spirals, (b) target (i.e. bullseye shaped) patterns, (c) double spirals and (d) more disordered terraces.
'In a totally different field of science, crystals also grow in three-dimensional patterns with spirals and target patterns.'
In both crystals and beehives a single layer is created in compartments before being developed on top of this to gradually create a layered appearance.
Worker bees add new cells to the edges of each terrace, each of which is then filled with an egg and closed before repeating the process. These layers, or terraces, are then used by the insects to move around the colony.
The researchers equate the terraces to different levels in a multi-story car park.
In crystals, atoms, molecules, ions or other tiny particle attaches to the edge of crystals at the edge of terraces known as steps and kinks.
The researchers developed a model to understand more about how this process was used in two vastly different systems.
They found both stingless bee hives and crystals operate within a so-called excitable medium, a physical phenomenon in which a structure can grow but only after one layer has had enough time to fully set.
They also rely on a distinct lattice arrangement in which the excitable medium is confined, resulting in the terraced and 3D structures.
'Both crystal growth and this bee comb construction are describable within the mathematical framework of excitable media, the authors write.
'Crystals, slime moulds, the brain, the heart, chemical oscillators, forest fires and many other systems can function as excitable media.
'And in this instance, bees making their combs, too. So 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, so that they both possess the same spiral and target patterns.
'There is a beautiful mathematical equivalence between how molecules build a crystal and how bees build a bee comb.'
The findings were published in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface.