Beeswax is one of the most magical substances on earth – at least that’s what we beekeepers will tell you. This natural wax is used to construct the home of honey bees. More valuable per pound than honey, it is produced by female worker bees. It’s time to learn – How do bees make wax?
Where Does Beeswax Come From?
Any local beekeeper who displays 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.
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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.
The light honey aroma permeates the air. It is hard to believe that insects actually make this wonderful substance. Young females are the best wax producers.
What is Beeswax?
Beeswax is a natural wax that is produced from the glands of bees in the genus Apis. 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. The exact composition of beeswax varies from one location to another.
With a melting point of around 147 °F, beeswax can be gently melted to retain all of its aromas and desirable properties.
If it is heated for a long period or to a temperature over 185°F – it may darken and lose some of its natural color. When exposed to temperatures near 400°F beeswax can cause fire .
Why do Bees Make Wax?
Wax is used to build the home of a colony of honey bees. The colony nests inside of cavities. This may be a modern beehive or a hollow tree. Sheets of wax honeycomb are built to fill the interior.
Each sheet contains thousands of individual wax cells. These cells will be used for several purposes but most importantly: to hold baby bees, and to have a place to store honey.
Most people assume that some type of material is collected to use in nest building for the colony. This is not true. Honey bees don’t collect nest materials – they produce them!
How is Beeswax Made?
Do all honey bees make wax? All honey bee species have the capacity to make wax. However, worker bees are the only members of a colony that can do this important task.
Usually, these are young house bees who have not started foraging outside yet. Later, their tasks will change and they will be responsible for collecting things needed by the colony. But first, they have work to do inside.
Adults around the age of 14 – 21 days are the best wax producers. Though in a pinch, 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.
When the colony needs more comb, young adults gorge on honey. This boost of food is necessary to activate the wax glands. A lot of nectar must be brought to the hive to feed these wax producing bees.
Worker honey bees have special glands on the underside of their abdomens. There are 4 pairs of glands (for a total of 8) that can secrete wax. These glands are located between the abdominal segments.
When wax is first secreted it is in small pieces and is clear. We call these wax scales (flakes). It takes many scales to build sections 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.
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 bees sleep along the perimeter of the comb to get a bit of rest.
Some reports say that bees must consume 8 pounds of honey to produce 1 pound of wax. That is alot!
A colony that has to produce a lot of fresh beeswax each season produces less surplus honey. Therefore, if you find a honey 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.
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.
Colors of Raw Beeswax
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.
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 can be used to cap bee brood cells
- old pieces can be mixed with propolis and used to seal cracks
Other Uses of Beeswax
Humans have many uses for beeswax too. Honey is not the only product beekeepers can sell. This excess beeswax can be used in many crafts and projects.
While there are still some mysteries around beeswax production, we do know a good thing when we see it. What can you do with a little beeswax ?