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Why Bees Need Honeycomb in the Hive
What is honeycomb? Honeycomb consists of sheets of beeswax shaped into thousands of hexagonal cells. These individual beeswax cells make up the structure of the beehive. When holding a frame of beeswax honeycomb, you must marvel at the beauty of wax and honey. Bees produce the wax needed to make comb this is quite a feat for such a small insect.
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.
Thousands of hexagon shaped cells make up the sheets of comb inside a hive. The colony will fill the entire available space inside the hive with sheets of comb.
What is Honeycomb Made of ?
Honeycomb (beeswax) is a natural secreted wax from honey bees. The chemical composition can vary a bit but is mainly esters (71%), hydrocarbons (15%), fatty acids (6%) and some other substances.
Beeswax has a high plasticity, is brittle when cold and has a low melting point compared with other types of wax.
Why do Bees Build Hexagon Shaped Cells?
Most beeswax cells in a sheet of honeycomb will be built in a 6 sided hexagon shape. There are several advantages to this formation.
Less building material is used to create the honeycomb cells as there are no wasted corners. This meets the needs of the colony for brood rearing and food storage and gives them highest number of cells in a given space.
Beeswax Cells that are Different Sizes & Shapes
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. While if allowed to build natural comb – they do their own thing.
Drone Cells are Larger Wax Cells
The diameter of a wax cell intended for 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”.
Queen Cells Have a Special Shape
Another honeycomb cell that is different is the queen cell. This cell starts out as a common hexagon beeswax cell.
However, because the queen honey bee is so much longer than workers, the cell must be constructed down the face of the comb surface.
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.
How Bees Make Beeswax
Worker honey bees have the amazing ability to make beeswax. Eight wax glands are located on the underside of the abdomen of workers. These glands produce scales of wax that the worker shape into comb.
Younger adults are the best wax producers but older bees can make beeswax too.
How Worker Bees Build Honeycomb
When the wax “scale” first appears on the worker bee’s glands – it is clear. As the wax cools, the color becomes white.
Fresh newly constructed comb is snow white. Over time, beeswax obtains color from honey, pollen and thousands of little bee feet.
As beeswax is produced, worker bees hang in long chains to create sheets of honeycomb. This is called “festooning“.
Using legs and mouth-parts, the soft wax pieces are formed into hexagon cells. Each side of a sheet of honeycomb has many hexagon cells.
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.
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 closed off with a wax cap. This protects whatever is inside the hexagon honeycomb cell.
The honeycomb cells will be used to raise young bees, store pollen and store honey.
Bees Rear Young in Wax 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. In the brood nest, the queen bee lays eggs to support the population of the colony.
The eggs will develop into worker bees, drones or even a new queen bee if needed.
From egg to adult emergence, the young bee remains in the honeycomb cell growing and developing into an adult bee.
Food for the Colony is Stored in Comb
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 enzyme 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.
While huddled inside the hive, the cluster of bees must stay in constant contact with food during cold temperatures.
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.
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 cells have a purpose. During cold weather, the bees cluster close together in a mass to sustain life.
Bees are insects. They are cold blooded and must maintain a certain body temperature. In the cluster, individual bees enter empty cells.
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 Beeswax Honeycomb Good for You?
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. So feel free to enjoy a piece of raw honeycomb anytime you get the chance.
What is Honeycomb to the Bee Colony?
The most basic part of any honey bee colony. Honeycomb is life. Colony survival would be impossible with it.
This marvelous product is only produced by honey bees. But bees are not the only ones that enjoy it’s benefits.
We consume it and use it in many recipes and use it to make many beeswax crafts. Thanks bees.