Spirit level


By Ian Sample Tiny magnetic crystals have been found lodged in the roofs of the hexagonal cells hornets build for brood-rearing. Scientists believe the hornets put the crystals there to help them build regular, symmetrical combs. “These tiny crystals form a network that may act like a surveyor’s spirit level, helping the hornets to assess the symmetry and balance of the cells, and the direction of gravity while they are building the comb,” says Jacob Ishay of Tel-Aviv University in Israel. Ishay and colleagues at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands were studying hornet nests and noticed that fine fibre “veins” in the cell roofs all pointed towards the centre of the dome. “This gave us an idea that there must be something connecting these fibres in the middle,” says Ishay. When they looked closer, they found the centre of each cell roof contained a crystal of “ilmenite” measuring a tenth of a millimetre across. This is a magnetic iron titanium oxide. Ishay says the precise architecture of hornet nests suggests the insects have some method of assessing distances and orientation. If hornets are able to detect magnetic fields, the crystals may guide them as they build the nest. The researchers found that the crystals had been fixed in place with saliva. Because hornets contain all the elements to make the crystals, Ishay says they may be secreted. Alternatively,
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