How Do Bees Make Wax?

Last Updated: 18.11.19

 

Adult worker bees release tiny wax flakes from special glands on their abdomen and then they chew these flakes into suitable building material for the honeycomb. The wax bees produce is also very useful to people, since we use it in a wide range of products – check it out, as it is a fascinating process.

Have you ever wondered why do bees make wax honeycombs and how do they make them? Honey bees have been around for a very long time, and most of us know just how important they are to our planet. However, not many of us know the interesting details of their everyday life, or just how complex these tiny insects are.

Honey bees are eusocial flying insects that live in large perennial colonies, in hives made out of honeycombs. These bees, that belong to the genus Apis, depend on their production of honey for the survival of the colony during the winter time, when there are no flowers out there for them to feed on. Honey bees store their honey in honeycombs that are made of beeswax.

Each honeycomb tube-like cell has a hexagonal shape. This is where one can see Mother Nature’s genius in action since this hexagonal shape of the honeycomb cells has proved to be the one that needs the least amount of wax to make while holding the largest quantity of honey. The honeycombs are an example of optimizing space and resources with a maximum effect.

Beeswax is essential to any beehive since it is the material honeycombs are made of. The honeycomb is used for storing honey, but also for holding the eggs the queen lays and the bee larvae when they hatch. The entire activity of the hive revolves around the honeycombs. Worker bees do a great job in maintaining it in tip-top shape at all times.

 

Which bees make the honeycombs?

As you might already know, within a typical honey bee colony every individual plays a specific role within it. First of all, there is the queen bee, which is taken care of by the worker bees and has the sole purpose of laying eggs and ensuring the colony gets bigger every day.

Then there are the drones, or fertile male bees, that play the role of fertilization and ensuring an adequate gene pool within the colony. And last, but not least, there are the worker bees. They are sterile females that make up the majority of the colony and have various tasks they do on a daily basis, ensuring the wellbeing of the entire colony.

First of all, worker bees are the ones that go out foraging for food, ensuring enough food supplies for the entire hive. They are also the ones that make honey, make the wax that the honeycombs are made of, and also build the hive. Worker bees are also the ones that care for bee larvae as soon as they hatch until they develop into bees. 

It takes worker bees between 7 days and 2 months to build a honeycomb, depending on the size of the hive. When storing honey in it, worker bees will cover each cell with a cap, that is also made out of wax. Honeycomb caps get simply cut off when honey is needed within the hive, while the honey inside the cells has been stored in perfect conditions.

How do worker bees make wax?

When the worker bees reach the age of 10 days, special wax making glands located on their abdomen develop, enabling them to become wax-producing bees. There are eight mirroring glands on the abdomen of every adult worker bee. Wax is released from every gland in the form of scales. The size of these wax scales may vary, but the average scale is approximately 0.12 inches in size.

Chemically, beeswax consists mainly of long-chained alcohols and fatty acid esters. Fresh wax is initially a colorless, glass-clear material. To make it suitable building material, honey bees will chew the wax until it gets just the right texture needed for easily molding it into the preferred shape. For this to happen, the temperature inside the hive has to be between 91 and 97 degrees Fahrenheit.

While the chewing process takes place, the wax becomes progressively opaque and yellow or brown in color. This happens because while chewing it, bees mix the wax with pollen oils and propolis. The final color of the wax depends on the type of flowers bees fed on during the time that particular wax was chewed.  

 

Bee space

In honey bee species that have multiple honeycombs, the combs are located at a precise distance from each other, giving the worker bees enough space to move between them, but also to keep a certain airflow and temperature within the hive. Wild honey bees will precisely locate the different combs themselves.

However, when beekeeping is involved, the beekeeper has to make sure the frames are suitable for the job, and they are positioned at just the optimum distance from each other. This is one factor that will influence the temperature inside the hive, therefore influencing the overall well-being of the colony, as well as the production of honey, quantity-wise.

The optimum space between the combs varies according to the honey bee species. For Apis mellifera, for instance, the distance allows two worker bees to pass each other without touching. In other honey bee species, the distance has to be a little bigger because they will build deeper honeycombs, that are able to hold more honey. 

In naturally constructed combs, the cell size and orientation may vary by species, while in the frame-to-frame box hives, generally used for beekeeping, the frames pretty much guide the building of combs. This is why it is so important for the box hives to be very well adapted to the honey bee species we intend on keeping inside.  

For instance, if space allows it, the combs of Apis mellifera will get to be as big as one meter long and each honeycomb can hold up as much as several pounds of honey. Usually, a comb is built from top to bottom, starting with a small hexagonal, tube-like cell. Each cell of the comb is facing slightly upwards, making it easier for the bees to add honey to the cells. 

What do people use beeswax for?

Beeswax has been used in many ways for a very long time, even since ancient history. One of its first uses was candle making. Back in the days when electricity did not exist, candles were the only light source inside homes, at night time. This means beeswax was very important to every family back then.

As time went on, and science evolved, beeswax became largely used for many purposes. Nowadays, beeswax is one of the main ingredients in some beauty products, such as lip balm, hand and face cream, eyeliner, and most types of mustache wax. Also, a wide range of hair masks contains beeswax, which makes the hair look shiny and sleek.

There are three types of beeswax used in the cosmetics industry, food industry, and the pharmaceutical industry. These three types are yellow, white, and beeswax absolute. The first one, yellow beeswax, is what the crude wax, obtained straight from the honeycomb is called. White beeswax is yellow beeswax that has been filtered and bleached. 

Beeswax absolute has a yellow color and it has been treated with alcohol. In the food industry, for instance, it is used for coating some types of matured cheese. By sealing all the pores, the wax will ensure a longer shelf life of the product, preventing it from spoiling. Since beeswax is made out of natural ingredients, it is not toxic, making it suitable for human consumption, in small amounts. 

 

 

 

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