Beeswax & Honeycomb

If you look carefully at a Beekeeping Hive you will find that beyond the man-made bits, the beekeeping hive is built of beeswax and honeycomb.

Beeswax & Honeycomb 

The honeycomb is the inner house of the honey bees. It is where young bees are raised and where the hive’s food is stored. The comb is built out of beeswax, which is produced only by young worker bees. Glands on the undersides of the bodies of these young bees can produce tiny pieces of wax. Worker bees chew these small flakes of wax and work them to form the comb.

Generally, the newly constructed comb is beautifully white in color. It may be light yellow when bees are getting nectar from goldenrod or other similar flowers. The comb becomes darker over time, because as each new bee is born, it sheds its skin and this becomes part of the cell. Also, bees collect propolis, which can make the comb darker. The comb consists of many small, six-sided tubes (cells) built side by side. The floor of the cells slopes slightly downward to the bottom and is shaped like a three-sided pyramid pointing away from the cell opening. This small slope is necessary so that the substances put into the cell do not slide out of it.

Honeycomb Cells

There are three different cell sizes. The large drone bee is hatched from an egg and grows to adulthood in the larger of the two cells (drone cell). The smaller, worker bee grows in the slightly smaller worker cell. Worker cells that are full of eggs, developing larvae, and pupae are usually found in the central part of the comb (brood area). The third cell size is the queen cell.

Bordering the brood area is a narrow strip of worker cells where pollen is stored. Pollen is an important food for the larva growing in the brood area cells, because it is the source of the bees’ protein and because it is rich in fat. The field bees collect pollen in the form of tiny pellets from flowers and carry it back to the hive by putting it in small, basketlike pouches on their back legs. This pollen varies in color, depending on the type of flower from which it came. A cell is never completely filled with pollen.

Bees generally pack the pollen in a cell until it is about 3/4 full. Sometimes they add a little honey to the pollen to preserve it. This makes the pollen look wet. This storage method maintains the freshness of the pollen for a long time. The outer edges of comb beyond the narrow pollen storage area are used for ripening and storing honey. Between each comb, the bees leave a space about 3/8-inch wide. If the space between combs is much wider or narrower, the bees will close it up with wax and bee glue. It was the discovery of this important space, the bee space, by Langstroth that led to the development of the modern beehive.

The Modern Beekeeping Hive

In the modern beekeeping beehive, all the frames of comb are specially built so that they are surrounded on all sides by bee space. Because of this, the bees do not clog up the area between the frames of comb. Then the frames can be taken out and put back into the hive easily. Besides the honeycomb, you are certain to find another important substance in the hive. This is bee glue (propolis). Propolis is a very sticky brown material that the bees use for many purposes: holding down the hive lid, covering the inside walls of the hive, fastening frames, strengthening comb, plugging holes, and, sometimes, narrowing the entrance. Field bees gather propolis from various plant buds, picking up such sticky substances as pitch from pine trees.