How do Bees Make Wax?

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One of the most remarkable tales from the beehive is the story of how do bees make wax. The actual foundation material for their nest, beeswax is produced by bees from special glands. However, they must gather the right materials and work together to create their ideal structure of honey comb. Let’s explore the process of beeswax production and learn where beeswax really comes from!

Worker honey bees on comb built using beeswax made by the bees.

Beeswax is a natural wax that is made by honey bees of the genus Apis. An interesting honey bee fact, only the worker bees are able to perform this special task.

Where Does Beeswax Come From?

Among several species of types of honey bees, most of the wax we use comes from Apis mellifera (the Western Honeybee). Only the worker bees make beeswax.

Aptly named, they are the workforce for the colony. Serving as engineers and architects, workers oversee the entire comb building process.

Some insects collect materials for nesting (i.e. bees nest vs wasp nests). But, not our honey bees – they make their nest from materials produced by their bodies.

Beeswax Production

Among worker bees, young adults are the best wax producers – those around the age of 14 to 21 days. Older bees can also produce wax if the need is great but they are not as good at it as the younger ones.

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 plenty of incoming food.

Wax comb cells are used for food storage and rearing young bees or bee brood. The colony in need of more space is more likely to have high wax production taking place.

Worker bee with wax scales protruding from wax glands .

Wax Scales

Worker bees are female and have 4 pairs of special wax-producing glands (total of 8) on the underside of their abdomens. These “wax glands” produce small flakes or scales of clear beeswax.

When wax is first secreted, it is clear liquid – but quickly solidifies. The process of making wax requires honey bees to consume a lot of food.

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.

Comb Construction

Once wax scales are being produced, it is time to put them together to make what we know as sheets of honey comb.

Honey bees have 6 legs– a helpful aid in making wax comb. These segmented legs (including the knee-like bee structures) are used to shape the soft wax flakes.

Groups of bees hang in chains ( we call this “festooning bees” during comb construction.

Worker bees on new frame in hive with comb construction beginning.

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 manipulate them their mandibles (bee teeth) into shape.

Work continues around the clock, as the sheets of comb begin to take form. Some bees sleep along the perimeter of the comb to get a bit of rest-can you blame them?

How Bees Use Wax in the Hive

Beeswax is used and reused in the hive as much as possible. Honey bees expend a lot of energy and resources in wax production. 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 brood cells
  • old pieces can be mixed with raw bee propolis and used to seal cracks in the hive wall
Worker bees capping honey cells with fresh beeswax and a section with brood and bees..

Personal Experience

As a beekeeper for many years, I know that rendered (cleaned) beeswax from my hives can vary in color from one year to another. Most years it is pale yellow but sometimes cleaned beeswax is a bright yellow color.

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 honeycomb.

This is due to the tendency of wax to absorb pollen oils, propolis stains and the dirt from thousands of little feet.

This is why most beekeepers attempt to rotate out old wax comb to preserve a healthy colony atmosphere. Then your honey bees get to make new beeswax for a fresh hive.

FAQs

Do all honey bees produce beeswax?

All honey bee species have the capacity to make wax. However, not every member of the colony can perform this important task – only worker bees.

Why are beeswax cells in a hexagon shape?

The bees use hexagon shapes because it allows the construction of the most cells in a given space with the smallest amount of beeswax.

What is beeswax?

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.

How many wax cells are found on a sheet of honeycomb?

On average, a deep sized frame of honeycomb will have about 4500 individual hex shaped cells per side.

Why do bees make wax?

Honey bees make wax to form the internal structure of a beehive. This may be a modern beehive provided by a beekeeper or a hollow tree. It is used to store food and rear baby bees.

If my bees are not making beeswax is something wrong?

A lack of wax production is not always cause for concern. For the beekeeper whose bees are not building comb, a lack of enough young adults or food resources are possible problems. Inspect the hive for problems with population or a lack of food.

How much honey does it take to produce a pound of wax?

The normal consensus is that it takes 8 – 10 pound of honey (energy) to produce 1 pound of beeswax.

A Final Word

Beekeepers with a craft fait booth of bee products often sell blocks of beeswax. There are thousands of uses for beeswax in and around the home. You can make soaps, beeswax balms and pure beeswax candles too.

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 (chunk honey) it will be more expensive. Even if we don’t understand every single little thing about how bees make wax, we sure are glad they do!