What about wax?

By | April 11, 2013

These days, most people focus on honey as the harvestable product of a hive.
However back in the old days… beeswax was the main thing people wanted to harvest. Monks in particular were big beekeepers, to make their churches light, and smell nice with beeswax candles. The cheaper alternative was candles made from animal fat, which give off an unpleasant odour, and didn’t burn quite as bright.

But how do bees make wax?
Worker bees have 8 wax producing glands on the underside of their abdomen. They excrete the wax which is translucent clear, scale like, only a few mms in length, and 0.1 mm thick. The bees work it from these secreting glands forward with their legs to their mouths, to manipulate the wax into shape with their mandibles. Initially the secreted wax is very clear, but after being manipulated by chewing, turns a cloudy whiter colour.


Brood frame, and super frame, with foundation wax

Most modern beekeepers put frames of ‘foundation’ wax into the hive, which gives a starting template for the bees to build on. The foundation has a particular size hexagon, the size chosen by the beekeeper as differing sizes can be used differently by the bees.

However, bees are more than capable of building their own comb from scratch. The foundation just controls the size of the cell.

This image shows a deeper ‘brood’ frame, and shallower ‘super’ frame with foundation wax. Both frames have the same size hexagonal template. These frames have a diagonal wire fed through to improve the frame’s strength. Bees naturally make a hexagonal shape as it is the most efficient for storage and strength, the foundation just gives them a helping hand to start.


Building depth in the cells, deeper to the left but not yet started on the right

Bees then build up depth in the wax comb cells, by methodically manipulating the excreted wax onto the frame. The wax has to be quite warm to do this, so the bees do this in groups to generate heat.

They also chain together hanging onto each others feet, much like the old monkeys in a barrel game. This is known as ‘festooning’, and so they can calculate the size and direction of cells.

Just another of the marvels in the world of bees.

Comments are closed.