What Is Heap Data Structure in Python?


Larry Thompson

The Heap Data Structure in Python is a binary tree-based data structure that allows efficient retrieval of the smallest (or largest) element in constant time. It is commonly used to implement priority queues and sorting algorithms.

How Does a Heap Work?

A heap is a complete binary tree that satisfies the heap property. The heap property states that for every node, its value must be greater than or equal to (in a max heap) or less than or equal to (in a min heap) the values of its children.

In Python, heaps are typically implemented using lists. The root of the tree is stored at index 0, and for any given index i, the left child is at index 2*i+1 and the right child is at index 2*i+2.

Creating a Heap

To create a heap in Python, you can use the built-in module heapq. Here’s an example:

import heapq

# Creating an empty heap
heap = []

# Adding elements to the heap
heapq.heappush(heap, 4)
heapq.heappush(heap, 1)
heapq.heappush(heap, 7)
heapq.heappush(heap, 3)

print(heap) # Output: [1, 3, 7, 4]

In this example, we first import the heapq module. Then we create an empty list called heap.

We can add elements to the heap using the heappush() function from the heapq module. Finally, we print the contents of the heap.

Retrieving Elements from a Heap

To retrieve the smallest (or largest) element from a heap, you can use the heappop() function. Here’s an example:

heap = [1, 3, 7, 4]

# Retrieving the smallest element
smallest = heapq.heappop(heap)

print(smallest) # Output: 1
print(heap) # Output: [3, 4, 7]

In this example, we have a heap with elements [1, 3, 7, 4]. We use the heappop() function to retrieve the smallest element (1) and remove it from the heap. The updated heap is then printed.

Other Useful Functions

The heapq module provides several other functions to work with heaps in Python. Some of them are:

  • heapq.heapify(heap): Converts a regular list into a heap.
  • heapq.heappushpop(heap, item): Pushes an item onto a heap and simultaneously pops the smallest element.heapreplace(heap, item): Pops the smallest element from the heap and pushes a new item onto it.nlargest(n, iterable): Returns the n largest elements from an iterable.nsmallest(n, iterable): Returns the n smallest elements from an iterable.

The Advantages of Using Heaps

Heaps offer several advantages in certain scenarios:

  • Efficient retrieval of the smallest (or largest) element: Retrieving the smallest (or largest) element from a heap takes constant time, regardless of the size of the heap.
  • Efficient addition and removal of elements: Adding or removing an element from a heap takes logarithmic time, making it efficient for dynamic datasets.
  • Priority queue implementation: Heaps are commonly used to implement priority queues, where elements are assigned priorities and retrieved based on their priority.


In Python, heaps are powerful data structures that offer efficient retrieval of the smallest (or largest) element. They are widely used to implement priority queues and sorting algorithms. By understanding how heaps work and utilizing the heapq module, you can leverage this data structure in your Python programs to improve performance and efficiency.

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