July 9, 2016

A Closer Look at Honeycomb

Honey bee nests are made from honeycomb, which is made up of a mass of hexagonal wax cells built by the bees from wax . Each of these cells are used to contain honey and pollen stores and all stages of the young or brood from egg to pupa.

These hexagonal cells are built up on both sides of a central vertical plain known as the septum . The base of the cell on one side of the septum serves as the base for the cell on the other side, thereby maximizing the space created using the least amount of wax.

The hexagonal  honeycomb cells are not all the same size but come in two distinct sizes. Cells used to rear worker bees measure  approximately 5 to an inch, while those for the larger drone bees measure approximately 4 to an inch. Both types of  cells can also be used to store honey.

The honeycomb cell walls are very thin, only about .006 of an inch in thickness, with a slightly thicker top or coping. Propolis is used to strengthen and varnish the cells.

It is believed that the reason that honeycomb is composed of hexagons, rather than any other shape is that the hexagonal shapes cover a surface and create cells in a way that is composed of the least surface area. That is, the bees have typically used the most efficient way to maximise the storage space in an area while using the least amount of wax.

In a typical hive or nest in the wild the honeycomb structures or frames will hang vertically. The bees will build or draw the hexagonal cells out enough to hold the developing young bees or honey. If the cells are used for brood there will be enough space left for two bees to work back to back between the vertical honeycomb and if the cells contain honey to maximise the storage space there will be only enough space left for one bee to work between the honeycombs. The cells are also cleverly angled at about 13 degrees, which is just enough to prevent honey or nectar dripping out.

More about Honey Bee Colonies

How and Why Honey Bees Make Wax

Honey bees use wax to build comb that forms their nest and the intricate hexagonal cells that make up that comb. These wax cells are used to house the various stages of bee young (or brood)  as they develop from egg to adulthood. In addition wax cells are used to store pollen and nectar.

Wax is produced as needed by worker bees to form and repair comb and individual cells. The wax is secreted by these worker bees, from eight special wax glands situated on the underside of their abdomens (inside the protective plates or sternites of abdominal segments 4 to 7). Worker bees produce wax most efficiently during the 10th through to the 16th days of their lives and this declines steadily from day 18 until the end of  life.

When wax is required these workers fill themselves up with honey and then hang together in clusters to contain the heat generated by the metabolism of the honey in their muscles. This resultant rise in temperature allows the wax to be secreted from the bee’s wax glands and this secreted wax then pours into special holders beneath these glands and solidifies.

The eight translucent white blobs of wax that are formed are then removed by the bee using her end pair of legs and either passed to her mouth or to the mouth of others to carry to another part of the comb. The wax is worked on and manipulated until the consistency is right and  it is then moulded into position using the bees mandibles (or mouth parts) and the comb is built up to the size required to house newly laid eggs or food stores. It is in the mastication process that salivary secretions are added to the wax to help soften it and this also accounts for its change of colour. The colour of beeswax in a comb is white at first and then darkens with age and use, especially if it is used to raise brood.

It is believed that 6-8 pounds of honey is needed to produce a pound of bees wax and it is estimated that bees fly 150,000 miles, roughly six times around the earth, to yield one pound of beeswax (530,000 km/kg).

More about Honey Bee Physiology and Anatomy