Many internet users across the globe became mesmerized by a striking image that went viral in 2020. The captivating photograph is of honeycomb within a beehive which appears to have been shaped into a heart by the bees. But as it turns out, there’s more to the picture than meets the eye.
The photo of the honeycomb went viral online in June of that year. The arresting image was posted on Twitter by a British artist called Sarah Jane Humphrey, and it would go on to create quite a storm.
Humphrey earns a living as a natural science illustrator, according to her Twitter profile and personal website. She lives in the English county of Cornwall and has an illustration degree from Falmouth University. The artist has reportedly won awards for her work, which centers largely around the subject of botany. Humphrey also sells her pieces and toils as an author and lecturer, too.
The artist posted this astounding honeycomb heart image to Twitter with the caption, “My parents are beekeepers. They sent me this photo from a fellow French beekeeper who didn’t put the frames in his hive. This is the magic the bees created by themselves.”
Humphreys sent out the post that June and it quickly spread across the world. But just how well did the tweet perform? Well, at the time of writing it has garnered over 60,000 likes and counting.
Humphrey’s post has also amassed over 10,000 retweets since it was published in June 2020. In addition, the heart-shaped honeycomb photograph has elicited more than 750 comments. And many of these responses have been overwhelmingly positive.
One user wrote in response to Humphrey’s post, “I love this for so many reasons today. Firstly, I love bees. Second, [my] Twitter feed [is] full of so much hate and anger! And you post something so natural and so beautiful!”
Another Twitter user who was captivated by the image wrote, “This is magnificent! Thank you for sharing.” Likewise, a different person opined, “I just look at this bee hive in awe and marvel at mother nature’s handiwork and creativity. Thank you for sharing this marvel at the wings of the bees.”
Evidently, a significant proportion of Twitter users who commented on Humphrey’s post were mesmerized by the remarkable heart-shaped honeycomb. But not all the replies to the artist were positive. Furthermore, the post inspired a singer named Steve Byrne to investigate further and thoroughly probe her story.
And what about the plausibility of Humphrey’s claim? She argued in the post that the bees were solely responsible for creating the artwork in the photograph. But to answer this question, we need to take a detailed look how bees go about making honey and then building honeycomb.
The process which bees go through was detailed in the final episode of the 2005 BBC series Life in the Undergrowth. The legendary naturalist and presenter Sir David Attenborough traveled to Malaysia for this segment of the documentary. And there, he closely documented the lives of the biggest honey bees on the planet.
Attenborough had to tread very carefully while he was watching the bees in action. That’s because these tempestuous insects could have potentially attacked him in very large numbers. In fact, a single painful sting could quickly escalate into thousands more as they scramble to protect their colony.
Attenborough explains, “The colony’s great treasure, of course, is its huge store of honey. This is produced from nectar, which the bees industriously collect from flowers.” The naturalist then goes on to describe how the bees manipulate nectar to their benefit.
“[The bees] systematically expose [nectar] to the air so that the water it contains evaporates and it becomes sweeter and thicker,” Attenborough continues in the documentary. “[It then] eventually turns into honey.”
Attenborough adds, “The combs in which [the honey is stored] are continuously guarded by the covering of bees. They cling so thickly that it might seem that nothing could get past them.” But how do bees go about building their honeycomb? And why they are always hexagonal in shape? Well, the website IFL Science decided to answer these questions in an article.
The piece says, “Bees can be extremely intelligent. Not only do they learn how to overcome obstacles by doing, but they can actually learn by watching others as well.” The article then brings up something that will likely leave many of us scratching our heads in bewilderment. Interestingly, it argues that bees are “brilliant mathematicians.”
The article also includes a 2014 TED-Ed video by Andy Peterson and Zack Patterson, who elaborate on the math connection among other things. The educators explain why the hexagon shape of the honeycomb’s individual units are perfect for the flying insects. Furthermore, they outline why no other shapes would suffice.
The clip explains that bees have calculated over a long period of evolutionary history the best shape to guarantee that the highest amount of cells will fit into an enclosed space. Circles, for example, will leave gaps inside. So, the insects need a shape which will guarantee every last part of the structure is being utilized.
Bees use wax to produce honey, but they need to consume 8 ounces of it to produce just 1 ounce of the food substance, the video adds. As a result, they need a design which will allow them to store the highest amount of honey using as little wax as possible. And that’s where the hexagon shape comes in.
So, we’ve learned how bees create hexagonal cells purposefully in order to utilize their storage space efficiently. But can the honeycomb really be contorted by them into artistic shapes such as hearts? Well, the website Buzz This Viral has detailed some of the unique designs apparently created by the insects. And there are certainly some interesting designs and shapes – including the above pointy, tree-bound effort.
A cursory look at Pinterest or Google Images will also throw up plenty of eye-catching honeycomb shapes. Indeed, such designs suggest the heart-shaped honeycomb posted by Sarah Humphrey could potentially be true and entirely natural. But as we mentioned earlier, a singer called Steve Byrne was suspicious enough to do a thorough examination of the post.
Byrne posted a thread of his findings on Twitter after completing a forensic examination of the honeycomb. And the red-haired Scottish folksinger – who plays in the traditional folk band Malinky – posted the tweets four days after the original viral image was uploaded by Humphrey.
Byrne began, “Firstly, I’m a folklorist [by] trade. [I am] interested in traditions, customs, tales, songs [and] how things are passed on. In June 2020 an artist published a tweet saying her parents are beekeepers [and added that they’d] sent her this image from a fellow French beekeeper.”
Byrne continued, “The beekeeper had left the frame out of his hive – allowing the bees to freeform. Fine. On the thread, people ‘umm-ed’ and ‘aah-ed’ about the bees and their skill [and talked about] how amazing nature is. It [got over] 60,000 [likes] and [was] retweeted nearly 10,000 times.”
The Scottish singer then revealed a startling truth that would immediately cast doubt on the accuracy of Humphrey’s post. Byrne went on, “But! I had seen this image before. So, my folklorist… senses were activated. What’s going on here?”
Byrne was careful not to go as far as calling Humphrey an outright liar. He wrote, “To be fair, [Humphrey] didn’t actually say it was a friend of her parents. They could have simply sent her a copy of the image – knowing she was interested in natural history.” The musician then noted how Humphrey is a plant illustrator by trade.
The musician continued, “Perhaps [Humphrey’s parents] simply said, ‘Hey look at this amazing honeycomb, apparently it’s from a French beekeeper.’ The tweet read ‘fellow French beekeeper’ which could simply mean French person, who is also – like her parents – a beekeeper.” And that was all innocent enough, according to Byrne.
Byrne went on, “By this time I had done a Google Image search on the picture. Lots of hits. ‘Beekeeper forgot to put the frame…’ ‘Beekeeper forgets to put frame…’ Hmm. They’re from all over the world, and there seems to have been a swell around February 2020.”
Next, the mystery of the heart-shaped honeycomb deepened further after Byrne discovered a post from a U.K. conservation organization called the National Trust. The musician wrote, “Then someone posts a link in the Twitter thread to a [National Trust] story from August 2015. It was picked up again in February 2020 by [My Modern Net] and circulated online for a few weeks.”
Byrne continued, “The National Trust Facebook caption asks people if they have ever seen anything so beautiful. It also says their bees at Bodiam Castle have been busy making honey for their shop. One could, therefore, interpret this honeycomb as having been done by their bees.” However, he added, “But one could also read it as, ‘Wow. look at this pretty honeycomb picture, isn’t it amazing?’”
But then things got even more confusing. Byrne elaborated, “Then someone queries the image on the National Trust Facebook post, which has been shared several thousand times since 2015. The [organization] doubles down – or at least their social media person on duty that day does. They claim it was made by their own bees at the castle [and that it’s] the ‘real deal.’”
Then a new protagonist in the story called Brian Fanner suddenly emerged. As Byrne noted, this individual had jumped onto the National Trust Facebook thread. This was around the time in which the My Modern Net story was published about the honeycomb, and Fanner had an astonishing revelation about the picture itself.
Fanner had decided to reply to the National Trust after it took credit for the honeycomb. The South African man responded to the organization on Facebook, “I made this little artwork. It’s a simple manipulation.”
Fenner – who works as a designer – continued in his reply, “This image was first posted on my Facebook page and [it] went viral from there. This photo was most certainly not taken by [the] National Trust.” But not everyone on social media immediately believed Fenner. In fact, he apparently had to share a photo from his personal Facebook page to quieten the doubters.
Byrne noted that Fenner’s original picture of the heart-shaped honeycomb was from November 2013. The Scotsman also put a reminder that the National Trust story only emerged in August 2015. Meanwhile, Fenner’s original post was captioned simply, “A heart for Leila Flaherty Fanner.”
So, what did Fenner mean when he remarked that the picture was “a simple manipulation?” Well, let’s jump into the My Modern Met article where the Luna Design Company operative explains all. The writer notes, “The South African designer decided to gift his wife with a heart made of honeycomb, so he called on the help of some Cape honey bees. He took a board and added a quick slotted design of a heart and a couple of swirls to help guide them.”
Fenner then explained how he redesigned the honeycomb shape for his love. He told the website, “The lines are slots into which a foundation wax with the comb pattern on it can be placed… secured with melted beeswax. Normally [there is] a sheet to guide the bees… where to build. So, they just come across this weird pattern of foundation strip and start building onto it.”
The My Modern Net article noted, “This may seem like an odd sight, but that’s only because we’re used to beekeepers placing rectangular frames within the hive. The bees then deposit their honey and build a comb directly onto the frame, which can be easily taken out and harvested by the beekeeper.” It added, “The reality is that bees will use as much space as they have to store honey. In fact, natural hives can take on all shapes and sizes.”
And the whole heart-shaped honeycomb episode would go on to spark another debate entirely. This one was centered more around the worrying trend of people immediately taking things they stumble upon on the internet at face value. Indeed, The Poke and IFL Science both ran articles that referenced this phenomenon.
Byrne too would round up his Twitter thread by commenting on this sorry fact of modern life. He declared, “The thing to take away? On the internet, search behind what you see. Don’t take things at face value. Don’t let your ‘aww’ gene get in the way of thinking, ‘Hmm, is this for real?’ Because there are people out there who seek to use such kindly human instincts in unkind ways.”