We have all read the term “honeycomb” in reference to bees. But, what is it and why is it so important to honey bees. Honeycomb is sheets of beeswax made from thousands of individual hexagonal cells. These individual cells make up the inside structure of the beehive. It is their home.
Why Bees Need Honeycomb in the Hive
You do not have to be a beekeeper to appreciate the beauty of beeswax comb. It is the physical “building blocks” of a honey bee colony. No matter the outside appearance of the hive – inside you find several sheets of wax comb.
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What is Honeycomb Made of ?
Honeycomb is beeswax. Beeswax is a natural wax secreted from special glands on the abdomen 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 substances.
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.
Where Does Beeswax Comb Come From?
Long ago, early beekeepers believed that wax was collected from the environment. In the same way that bees collect nectar and pollen, it was thought that they collected pieces or wax. This was a wrong assumption of course.
Honey Bees Make Beeswax
Worker honey bees have eight wax glands located on the underside of their abdomen. These glands produce scales of wax (small slivers) after the bee engorges herself on honey.
On the underside of the worker’s abdomen, is 4 pairs of wax glands. Liquid wax is excreted from the wax glands (also called wax mirrors). It dries into clear flakes or scales.
Worker Bees Build Honeycomb Sheets
As beeswax is produced, worker bees hang in long chains to create sheets of honeycomb. This is called “festooning“.
Using her legs and mouth parts the worker shapes and forms the honeycomb. Younger adults are the best wax producers but older bees can make beeswax too.
Fresh newly constructed comb is snow white. Over time, beeswax obtains color from honey, pollen and thousands of little bee feet.
Producing wax is a tough job and requires a high consumption of food by the worker bees producing wax. Only well feed colonies are good comb builders.
Why Bees Build Hexagon Shaped Cells
Most cells in a sheet of honeycomb will be built in a 6 sided hexagon shape. This is instinctively done by the bees – no one showed them how. There are several advantages to using the hexagon shape.
Less building material is used to create the cells as there are no wasted corners. This meets the needs of the colony and gives them highest number of cells in a given space.
Beeswax Cells In Honeycomb are 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 cell intended for raising drone bees is a bit larger than that for a worker bee. This makes perfect sense as the drone is a larger bee.
In addition to having a slightly wider cell, the wax cell of a drone honey bee will protrude from the surface of the comb in the familiar “bullet shape”.
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.
What is Honeycomb Used For in the Hive?
Sheets of honeycomb can be thought of as an apartment building. The individual wax cells are like individual apartments.
Things can be stored in the cells and sometimes closed off with a wax cap. This protects whatever is inside.
Primary Uses for Comb in the Hive
- raise young
- store honey
- store pollen
Brood Rearing in Cells
Inside some honeycomb cells you may find developing baby bees. The area of the hive where young are developing is called the brood nest. I
Honey is Stored for Winter
Another substance stored in honeycomb is ripe honey. Honey bees collect plant nectar that is sweet and watery. Nectar would spoil easily. It is not suited to long term storage.
However, once the water content is reduced, and enzymes added – nectar is converted into honey. It is then stored in cells and sealed with wax caps. We call this capped honey or ripe honey.
This stored honey helps the colony survive during the cold Winter months. A colony stores an average of 60-70 pounds of honey for Winter.
Pollen Stored in Honeycomb
Bees also need pollen. It is the only protein source for the colony. Without pollen, no baby bees can be produced. During the warm months fresh pollen can be collected on nice days.
But, stored pollen can be used when no fresh pollen is available or the weather is not suitable for flight. The bees convert pollen into bee bread and save it until needed.
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.
Empty Comb Has a Purpose in the Hive Too
Even empty honeycomb serves a purpose. 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.
Is Eating Honeycomb Okay?
Roughage is good for us and the minerals and vitamins in the raw honey is nutritious. So feel free to enjoy a piece of raw honeycomb anytime you get the chance.
What Honeycomb Means to the Bee Colony
The most basic part of any honey bee colony. Honeycomb is life. Colony survival would be impossible with it. More than just a storage structure, sheets of honeycomb enable the colony to communicate, store food and exist as on cohesive use. This marvelous product is only produced by honey bees. But, bees are not the only ones that enjoy it’s benefits.
Humans have many uses for wax as well. Extra wax left over from the honey harvest can be used in many crafts and useful projects. Thanks bees.