When people mention beekeeping, it’s the sweet golden stuff that gets all the attention. But bees also make another useful and rather remarkable product in the form of comb.
What is beeswax exactly? How does it come into existence in the hive? Do bees collect it? Is it part of the pollen that they carry? Do they “spin” it, the way a spider creates silk for its web? If you have some similar questions, hopefully, I’ll be able to answer them in this article.
What is beeswax made of?
The short answer is that it’s made from honey. I know, I know, this doesn’t really make sense, but it’s the truth…sort of.
Bees consume honey and as they digest it, the honey is converted into wax through a series of glands on the bee’s abdomen. A honey bee has 8 wax-producing glands.
How much honey does a bee have to eat to make wax?
Bees must consume around 6-8 pound of honey to produce 1 pound of wax.
Do bees produce wax all their lives?
No, a bee produces the most wax when it is 10-20 days old. After this age, a bee’s wax production begins to wane.
How do the bees change the wax into the hexagonal shaped cells?
After the bees secrete the wax through the pores of their abdomen, it collects in flakes on their bodies. Bees will chew the wax, or more often, an obliging neighbor/worker bee will chew the wax flakes off of a friend. The bees chew and chew, mixing enzymes from their saliva and softening the wax flakes until it is formable like clay. The bees then add the wax to the comb, continuing the hexagonal shape.
In nature, bees will create “U” shaped comb hanging in flat disks. The wide top where the comb attaches allows for the most surface area to secure the comb below. As the comb narrows at the bottom, it becomes lighter in respect putting less strain on the attached surface.
When using a Langstroth hive, the bees take the hint from the frame inserts which are already molded in the hexagonal shape. They continue to form the cells from this pre-existing form. And usually, you have perfectly framed honey cells.
But every now and again, nature and instinct take over and the bees will deter from the forms and build a more natural honeycomb. This is called rogue comb building and can make it difficult to pull frames from the hive without damaging areas.
In hot weather, why doesn’t the wax melt?
Occasionally it can. But bees are expert temperature regulators. They use a fanning motion with their wings to cool the hive on hot days. They will also beard, in which some of the bees leave the hive to help lessen the “body heat” factor and collect in an external swarm at the entrance. For more, read my post on Bees and Bearding.
If the wax gets too warm it will melt, but if it gets too cold it becomes brittle and un-moldable.
It’s not only important that the bees keep the hive at 90 degrees to keep the Queen warm, but it’s also important for the formation of wax comb. To learn more about how bees keep the hive warm in cold temperatures read my post What Do Bees Do All Winter?
Why the hexagon?
Mathematically, a circle (cylinder) of all the container shapes possible, stores the most volume of liquid (honey). However, the curved shape of a circle allows for gaps when the cylinders are placed next to each other. In respect to comb building, this results in wasted space and extra wax production.
The hexagon is the perfect solution to this problem. The hexagon is the most “circle-like” shape that allows for other hexagonal cells to be placed next to each other without wasted space.
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