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Beeswax is a wonderful natural substance that humans have used for thousands of years. From candles to cosmetics, you might be surprised at what it can do. Despite this, many people have no idea how bees make wax or where beeswax come from. Let’s explore the process of wax production and how honey bees are able to build their homes with this natural wax.
Beeswax is a natural wax that is made by honey bees of the genus Apis. An interesting fact about bees, it is the female workers that have special glands on the underside of their abdomens for wax production.
Where Does Beeswax Come From?
There are several species of honey bees around the world. But, most of the wax we use comes from Apis mellifera (the Western Honeybee).
Local beekeepers who display a booth of bee products will often have a few blocks of beeswax or beeswax candles. Everyone loves to touch the wax and take a sniff.
Have you ever held a block of fresh beeswax? If you have, you know it is a joy from the hive. We love to look at it and smell it. It engages the senses of touch and smell.
What is Beeswax?
Amazingly, not every chemical compound in beeswax has been identified. However, we do know that it has over 280 different compounds consisting of many acids, esters, polyesters and fatty alcohols, hydroxymonoesters.
Also, the exact composition of beeswax varies from one location to another. This is mainly due to the various plant nectar that bees consume and use for wax production.
Why do Bees Make Wax?
Wax is used to build the internal structure of a beehive. Western honey bees like to nest inside cavities. This may be a modern beehive provided by a beekeeper or a hollow tree.
Sheets of honeycomb with thousands of individual wax cells are built to fill the interior. These cells are used for several purposes but most importantly: as a place to store food and an area to raise baby bees.
Most people assume that some type of material is collected to use in nest building for the colony. This is not true.
Unlike wasps nests, honey bees don’t used collected nest materials. They produce them!
How Beeswax is Made
Do all honey bees make wax? All honey bee species have the capacity to make wax. However, not every member of the colony can perform this important task.
It is the young adults in this group that are the best wax producers – around the age of 14-21 days of age.
These young house bees have not started foraging outside yet. But, older workers can make wax too – they just will not be as good at it.
Aside from plenty of young adults, the colony has a few more requirements for good wax production. There has to be a need for wax in the hive and a good flow of food coming in.
Secretion of Wax Scales
When the colony needs beeswax, young adults gorge on honey. This boost of food is necessary to activate the wax-producing glands. A lot of nectar must be brought to the hive to feed these wax producing bees.
Workers have 4 pairs of glands (total of 8) on the underside of their abdomens. These glands are located between the abdominal segments.
When wax is first secreted the liquid quickly solidifies. We call these small, clear pieces wax scales (flakes). Each scale is very small. It takes many scales to build a section of comb.
Using their legs with knee-like structures and mouth parts called mandibles, workers shape the soft wax flakes into what we know as honeycomb.
The bees actually hang in “chains” to construct the comb. We call this “festooning bees“. They grab the wax scales with their legs. Using legs and mouth parts the wax is shaped into thousands of cells.
Some bees sleep along the perimeter of the comb to get a bit of rest.
This is a community project and other colony members often help their sisters. They do this by removing the wax scales from a neighbors body and chewing them (with their teeth) into shape.
The process of making wax requires honey bees to consume a lot of food. Hence, wax production is a resource heavy task for the honey bee colony.
Some reports say that bees must consume 8 pounds of honey to produce 1 pound of wax. That is a lot!
Why are Beeswax Cells in a Hexagon Shape?
A deep sized frame of honeycomb will have (on average) about 4500 individual cells per side. Each one is in a hexagon shape.
Why this shape? The hexagon allows the construction of the most cells in a given space with the smallest amount of beeswax.
How Bees Use Wax in the Hive
Beeswax is used and reused in the hive as much as possible. Because it requires a lot of effort to produce, the colony does not waste any.
- fresh wax used to cap cells of ripe honey for storage
- bits of older wax is used to cap bee brood cells
- old pieces can be mixed with propolis and used to seal cracks
When fresh wax is first made by bees, it is a beautiful pristine white. After spending time in the hive, the color of honeycomb changes.
Often progressing from a light yellow, to light brown and if left long enough you will even see black comb.
This is due to the tendency of honeycomb to absorb pollen oils, propolis stains and the dirt from thousands of little feet.
This is why most beekeepers attempt to rotate out old comb to preserve a healthy colony atmosphere.
A colony that has to produce a lot of fresh beeswax each season produces less surplus honey. Therefore, if you find a jar containing comb it will be more expensive.
For the beekeeper whose bees are not building comb, a lack of enough young adults or food resources are possible problems.
A Final Word
Even if we don’t understand every single little thing about how bees make wax, we sure are glad they do!
With a melting point of around 147 °F, beeswax can be gently melted to retain all of its aromas and desirable properties. This makes it a great ingredient for crafters to use.
While there are still some mysteries around beeswax production, we do know a good thing when we see it.