How Bees Use Beeswax in the Beehive
A Swarm’s Rapid Beeswax Production
When a swarm leaves the parent colony, the individual worker bees engorge with honey to carry with them to their new nest site. While this honey serves to keep the swarm alive during the move to the new location—a period of a few hours to several days—any remaining honey is digested and used to produce beeswax and construct essential honeycomb. Swarm bees are uniquely qualified to produce new beeswax. They are primed to convert the carbohydrates in the honey to liquid beeswax they secrete from the four pair of wax glands on the ventral (bottom) side of their abdomens. There is one pair on each of segments 4 to 7. They hang in chains of bees as secretion occurs. As it is secreted, the liquid wax immediately solidifies when it hits the air and forms a wax scale, and the scale is like the rings of a tree, under the microscope they show the layers of wax as it is secreted.
Spines on the bee’s legs move these scales to the mouthparts where the bee can chew the scale with their mandibles and adds saliva to soften the wax so it can be worked by this and other bees in the hive. Wax is deposited along a line to form the midrib of the comb and additional wax is placed on it to build out the comb. Natural-comb beekeepers deposit a bead of hot beeswax to establish the desired pattern for the eventual comb. Other beekeepers put in starter strips for the same reason. These are usually about one inch strips of pure beeswax foundation that the bees are encouraged to use as a starting point for comb construction.
As the comb is produced, the weight of the bees may cause the comb to distort somewhat, forming irregular comb shapes. Bees use gravity as the stimulus for vertically straight comb building, building the comb in alignment to the pull of gravity, so any hive that is placed on an unlevel location will produce asymmetrical or oddly shaped combs. While many beekeepers are familiar with the concept of the bee space, it needs to be expressed as a behavioral aspect of bees—it is the space where to bees, on opposite combs, can pass without interference. Thus, bee species of different sizes have a different bee space measurement. Biologically the bee space is the thickness of two worker bees. Irregular comb will be created wherever this relationship is challenged.
Worker bee production
New swarm colonies store fresh nectar and pollen in newly built honey comb, expanding the amount of comb rapidly during the first few days in the new domicile. The queen is fed to re-start (if she really completely stopped) her egg-laying behavior, and very soon the fresh, delicate comb contains an area of worker eggs surrounded by pollen and ripening nectar. The queen will lay eggs into the cells as long as the nectar stimulates further wax production; once the original honey carried from the parent hive is consumed, the new colony must rely upon incoming food sources. Fortunately, spring and early summer swarms are characteristically blessed with abundant nectar and pollen, so most of the comb the colony will need will be produced within the next two to three months. The timing of swarm production is no accident, for it allows the colony to build rapidly on the first weeks of the spring and engage in swarm production when queen pheromone levels decline, there are few cells for the queen to lay into (these two factors seem to be related), and the queen places eggs into the pre-existing queen cups in the colony.
Once the brood production area has been established in a bee tree or other cavity, the bees will build more combs above and beside the brood nest. These cells are all worker-sized cells during the initial establishment of the colony. Some of the initial honey storage cells will be given up for brood rearing, and retain a dynamic relationship between the two different colony needs as the colony expands and contracts bee population in the future.
Drone production and honey storage
It is not expected that a new swarm will itself swarm the same year it is produced. Especially if the old queen from the parent colony flew with the swarm, there will be strong pressure to replace the old queen once the colony has been built in size and strength, and there is a good moment for a daughter queen to take over her duties. We generally consider the queens in primary swarms to be older queens, and subject to a variety of factors of aging. A month or two after the new swarm has become established it is not unusual to find queen replacement or supersedure cells, in the relatively new colony. This is also associated with the production of drone-sized cells along the sides and at the bottom of the worker brood area. The failing queen may deposit many unfertilized eggs in these larger cells and provide a drone supply for other colonies experiencing a similar build up after swarming.
Examination of natural colonies show that 15 to 20 percent of the cells in a ‘mature’ natural colony will be drone sized, but rarely are there more than 3 to 5% of the drone cells filled with developing drones. What can be the explanation for this inconsistency? It has been shown that drone-sized cells, which begin noticeably larger, will provide the most efficient honey storage for the amount of beeswax used.
Colonies given inflexible worker cell-sized templates for cell production almost always end up with some drone comb built perpendicular to the line of the frames, usually attaching them to the plastic or wax templates. While there may be some comb stability advantages to this behavior, it is simply the bees’ way to adjust the worker cell domination to accommodate some drone cells. These cells may or may not be used to produce drones during the first season, but I have noticed that large primary swarms produced early in the season have more time to develop drones that same season, much the way any early nucleus colony will produce drones by the time it is filling the second hive body and the food supply is abundant.
What Is Beeswax?
As beeswax is the primary construction material of the beehive, its chemical composition is integral to how the hive functions. This same material, the storage location of food resources and developing brood, must be relatively non-reactive, so beeswax’s neutral pH (7) suits the need perfectly. A product of organic processes, this product is created from carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen—three elements taken from the honey and nectar the bees collect, which are arranged into long carbon chains of fatty acid esters and aliphatic alcohols. These compounds and their ratios vary from species to species, but retain similar chemical properties including a low melting point which, from a human perspective, makes it very useful for sculpting and shaping once it has been harvested and cleaned.
How bees produce beeswax
Bees produce beeswax by converting their nectar and honey stores into the compounds that become beeswax. The constituents of beeswax are synthesized in the oenocytes and fat cells of the bees when stimulated by an esterase enzyme. These compounds are secreted through the special glands on the underside of the bee, which were mentioned earlier. This task, performed exclusively by worker bees, is most easily accomplished by worker bees younger than 17 days old. The wax glands of older bees atrophy after they begin daily foraging flights.
Role of color in beeswax
New beeswax is lighter in color because of its lack of impurities. As beeswax gets used, particles from the environment become lodged in the wax and it becomes stained with use. Some bees use the bee glue, propolis, to line cells with in order to take advantage of its medicinal properties, a process that also alters the coloration of the wax. Certain nectar sources have natural pigments that seem to be incorporated into the wax, and many beekeepers associate certain wax colors in their operation with specific nectar sources. For example, I consider the wax produced from goldenrod flowers to have a deeper yellow and brighter hue than wax produced from the nectar of other plant species.
Separation from honey by crushing or pressure
In most Human cultures that developed with honey bees in their environment, honey was harvested by the partial or complete destruction of the bee nest, depending upon the culture. Brood combs were used for immediate consumption, since the food value of the fresh larvae and pupae decline rapidly once they bees are removed and secondary bacteria start a decomposition of the bodies of the dying bees. Most of the brood comb, which contains wax, is eaten and the wax passes through the digestive system as an inert material. There is no food value for humans in beeswax.
But the honey can be stored in natural and human-made containers and either stored in pieces of comb, or crushed by hand to drain off the honey. From the mediaeval housewife to the contemporary small-scale beekeeper, the easiest way to harvest honey from a few hives is to crush and drain the liquid honey from the beeswax combs. Some beekeepers still use comb presses to remove honey. Once the majority of the honey has drained off the wax, the traces amounts of honey still need to be removed. Some use heat in double boilers, or carefully watch small batches in the microwave to separate honey from wax. Once most of the honey has strained off, many take fresh water and mix the honey-beeswax combination to wash the honey off the wax. The liquid is saved for use in cooking (great on vegetables), in canning as the sweetener around fruit, and is often adjusted for sugar content for brewing into honey beer or mead. I bring in bits of honey scrapped from frame tops and bottoms, off the inner cover, etc., and put them into a colander, crush and drain the honey, and rinse the smashed wax with a small amount of water and use this water on the next batch of carrots or sweet potatoes I make. It can also be used in summer cold beverages as a sweetener (honey sweet ice tea) and hot beverages in the fall.
Cappings pose special issues
A side aspect of large honey extracting operations is that they generate large volumes of wax cappings infused with honey. Various commercial devises using resistance-wire heat, infrared lamps and other techniques liquefy the wax, but at a low enough temperature that the honey is not burned. Honey from commercial capping melters is often overheated and must be kept separate from the bulk of the honey harvest. Capping melter honey is usable in commercial and home baking in recipes able to handle the partial carmelization of the honey that the heating generates.
Beeswax may be heated in a double boiler or commercial wax melter following standard safety recommendations. The wax may be poured through a heavy fabric, like that of an old sweat shirt, that is securely clipped or fastened over a container. The liquid wax may be poured through the simple filter to remove bits of dirt and hive contamination that naturally occur in the hive. This process may need to be repeated more than once, depending on the eventual use of the wax. A single filtering is adequate for beeswax that is being sold to a wax processor for reworking into wax foundation or other products; this wax will be further refined. For craft wax (Batik, encaustic painting, lost-wax sculpturing) make sure the wax is ultra clean of any trace of honey and any evidence of other contamination.
For show wax, you may need to resort to filtering the wax several times to remove even a hint of dirt. One person I know uses a low setting on an electric oven and melts small batches of wax over a filter so the wax drips into a clean glass or metal mold below. Once the wax is all melted and filtered, it is allowed to cool slowly in the oven to prevent any rapid cooling, cracking or unusual effects in the wax blocks. This person always seems to win the top prize in wax competitions, both as a block of wax or poured into a mold.
Written with the assistance of Robert Muir.
The fully revised 2013 edition of Dewey M. Caron and Lawrence John Connor’s Honey Bee Biology and Beekeeping is available at www.wicwas.com and selected bee book sellers. Copies will be available for sale and to receive the authors’ autographs at the Eastern Apicultural Society meeting in August.