What is Honeycomb?

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A marvel of nature crafted by bees – what is honeycomb? This structure boasts thousands of individual wax cells, forming the framework of the colony. Here bees store food, raise young and cluster together to survive the cold months of Winter. Honeycomb with its unique physical properties is truly a natural wonder.

Sheet of honeycomb from a beehive with the cells filled with honey.

Any hive of honey bees is sure to contain honeycomb. This is a bit unique and is one major way that bees and wasps differ. Honey bees not only build their nest – they make the raw materials used.

Properties of Honeycomb

What is honeycomb made of? Well, honeycomb sheets are made with beeswax. This natural wax is secreted from the special glands of worker honey bees.

The chemical composition of beeswax can vary a bit. However, it is mainly esters (71%), hydrocarbons (15%), fatty acids (6%) and some other minor substances.

It has antibacterial properties and antimicrobial properties. When harvested from the hive, honeycomb contains: honey, pollen, bee propolis and some royal jelly.

Fresh newly constructed comb is snow white. Over time, beeswax obtains color from honey, pollen and thousands of little bee feet.

Beeswax has a high plasticity, it is brittle when cold and has a low melting point compared with other types of wax. This makes it a favorite of many crafters who find thousands of uses for beeswax.

Honeycomb Production

When the colony needs new comb, worker bees engorge themselves on honey causing their wax glands to produce scales of wax (small slivers).

As beeswax is produced, workers hang in long chains. This is thought to aid in comb construction and is called “bees festooning“.

Using her legs and mouth parts the worker shapes and forms the honeycomb sheets. Younger adults are the best wax producers but older honey bees can make beeswax too.

Producing wax is a tough job and requires a high consumption of food by the worker bees producing wax. Only well fed colonies are good comb builders.

Shaped Wax Cells

Most cells in a sheet of honeycomb will be built in a 6 sided hexagon shape. This is instinctively done – no one showed them how. There are several advantages to bees building hexagon cells.

Less building material is used to create the cells as there are no wasted corners. This meets the colony the highest number of cells in a given space. And the structure is stronger too.

Honeycomb Cells Different Sizes

Among the individual beeswax cells in a hive, you will find that the exact size of each cell can vary a bit. Some types of honey bees build larger cells than others-even for food storage.

Also, bees tend to conform to the cell size presented in a sheet of beeswax foundation. Colonies raised in a hive without foundation often do their own thing.

The diameter of a honeycomb cell intended for raising drone bees is a bit larger than that for a worker bee.

Another honeycomb cell that is different is the queen cell. Because the queen honey bee is so much longer than workers, the cell must be constructed down the face of the comb surface.

Honeycomb Function

Sheets of honeycomb can be thought of as an apartment building. The individual wax cells are like individual apartments. Different things are stored in the cells.

Primary Uses

  • raise young
  • store honey
  • store pollen
  • other

Brood Rearing in Cells

Inside some honeycomb cells you may find developing baby bees. All stages of the honey bee life cycle are present. This is called the brood nest of the colony.

Here, the queen bee performs her role of laying eggs. Eggs become bee larvae and are fed constantly to fuel their rapid growth.

The adults you find in this section of honeycomb are mostly nurse bees. It is their job to fed and care for the young.

Honey bee larva and capped brood in the comb inside a beehive.

Honey Storage

Another substance stored in honeycomb is ripe honey. Honey bees make honey from plant nectar. Watery nectar is converted into the stable food source we know as – honey. On average, a colony stores an average of 60-70 pounds of honey for Winter.

For the beekeeper, the excess crop is harvested for use. Only the excess – not needed by the colony for Winter-should be taken. In this manner, taking honey from bees is not a bad thing.

Pollen Stored

When you see a rainbow of color in your honeycomb, that is probably pollen. The color of pollen varies from one plant source to another.

Bees also need pollen as a protein source for raising young. The fresh pollen is converted into bee bread and stored until needed.

Empty Comb Has a Purpose Too

Even empty honeycomb serves a purpose too. During cold weather, the bees cluster close together in a mass to sustain life. Some bees are inside the cells and others clustered nearby.

The shared heat of all the bees helps to ensure colony survival until the weather warms. So, having some empty honeycomb cells is a good thing.

Frame of mostly empty comb with bees image.

Role of Honeycomb in Bee Society

The most basic part of any honey bee colony-honeycomb is life. More than just a storage structure, sheets of honeycomb enable the colony to communicate, store food and exist as a cohesive unit.

From dancing bees on the comb surface that announce new food sources to bee pheromones on the comb that serves as important signals. Honeycomb plays a role in bee communication.


How to bees create honeycomb?

Worker bees secrete wax scales from special glands. Using their mouth parts and legs, they share the fresh wax into roughly 6 sided shapes that make up the sheet of honeycomb.

What is the significance of honeycomb to bee culture?

Honeycomb is critical to bee culture because it provides not only the physical structure of the nest but also serves as a storage facility, nursery for young and aid in colony communication.

Is it okay for humans to eat honeycomb?

Is honeycomb edible? Yes. When you eat honey with beeswax comb, you are eating raw beeswax and raw honey.

However, humans are not capable of digesting beeswax. It passes through the body as roughage.

Is honeycomb good for you?

Roughage is good for us and the minerals and vitamins in the raw honey is nutritious.

Comb also contains long chain fatty acids and alcohols that may boost human health. So feel free to enjoy a piece of raw honeycomb (in moderation) if you get the chance.

Does honeycomb last a long time like regular honey?

If you store that raw honeycomb properly, it will last for a very long time – just like regular honey. It is also good to use as a spread on toast, bagels or biscuits. The section of wax from a jar of chunk honey is a healthy snack that is delicious.

How do beekeepers harvest honeycomb?

The most common way beekeepers harvest honeycomb is to save the beeswax that is left over during the normal honey harvest.

Final Thoughts

Aren’t honey bees marvelous. They produce the beeswax to produce honeycomb and then shape it into the numerous sheets of comb found in a hive. It is the heart of the colony.

This marvelous product is only produced by honey bees. But, bees are not the only ones that enjoy it’s benefits. We humans have found many beeswax uses of our own. Thanks bees.

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