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A marvel of nature crafted by diligent insects, what is honeycomb? An intricate structure that boasts thousands of individual wax cell, honeycomb is the framework of the colony. Here they store food, raise young and cluster together to survive the cold months of Winter. As you explore how bees produce honeycomb and its unique physical properties, it is impossible to not develop a bigger appreciation for the life of honey bees.
A beehive – this term is used loosely and means different things to different people. But, any natural 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.
Physical Structure of Honeycomb
What is honeycomb made of? Well, honeycomb is beeswax. Beeswax is a natural wax secreted from the special glands of workers.
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, propolis and some royal jelly.
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.
How Bees Make Honeycomb
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.
Worker honey bees have special wax glands. After engorging herself on honey, these glands produce scales of wax (small slivers).
Located on the underside of the worker’s abdomen, the 4 pairs of wax glands (also called wax mirrors) secrete liquid wax. It quickly dries into clear flakes or scales.
As beeswax is produced by bees, workers hang in long chains. This is thought to aid in comb construction and is called “festooning“.
Using her legs and mouth parts the worker shapes and forms the honeycomb sheets. 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 fed 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 – 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 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.
These queen cells are only found in a colony that is making a new queen.
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. Different things are stored in the cells and some are closed off with a wax cap.
- raise young
- store honey
- store pollen
Brood Rearing in Cells
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 Stored in Honeycomb
Another substance stored in honeycomb is ripe honey. Honey bees make honey from plant nectar. Nectar is watery and would spoil easily so it is not suited to long term storage.
However, during the process of converting nectar to honey, the water content is reduced, and enzymes from bees added. This stable food source can then be stored in cells and sealed with another layer of wax called a cap.
This stored food helps the colony survive. 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 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.
The Role of Honeycomb in Bee Society
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 a cohesive unit.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
The most common way beekeepers harvest honeycomb is to save the beeswax that is left over during the normal honey harvest.
Aren’t honey bees marvelous. They produce the beeswax to make 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.