How Honey Bees Make Beeswax

The Composition and Uses of Wax Made By Honey Bees

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Hadley, Debbie. "How Honey Bees Make Beeswax." ThoughtCo, Feb. 9, 2017, thoughtco.com/how-honey-bees-make-beeswax-1968102. Hadley, Debbie. (2017, February 9). How Honey Bees Make Beeswax. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/how-honey-bees-make-beeswax-1968102 Hadley, Debbie. "How Honey Bees Make Beeswax." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/how-honey-bees-make-beeswax-1968102 (accessed October 19, 2017).
Honeycomb closeup.
How do bees make wax?. Getty Images/Corbis Documentary/Catherine Leblanc

Beeswax is the foundation of the hive. Honey bees build their comb from beeswax, and fill the hexagonal cells with honey and brood. Do you know how honey bees make beeswax?

How Honey Bees Produce Beeswax

Young worker bees are charged with the task of making beeswax for the colony. Soon after a new worker bee emerges as an adult, it begins producing wax. Honey bee workers have four pairs of special wax-secreting glands on the undersides of their abdomens.

From these glands, they secrete liquified wax, which hardens into thin scales when exposed to the air. As the worker bee ages, these glands atrophy and the task of making wax is left to younger bees. 

During its peak wax production phase, a healthy worker bee can produce about eight scales of wax in a 12 hour period. The bee colony requires about 1,000 wax scales to make a single gram of beeswax for their comb. The geometry of the honeycomb allows the bee colony to maximize their storage space while minimizing the quantity of wax needed to build the structure.

How Bees Use Wax to Build Honeycomb

After the soft wax hardens, the worker bee uses stiff hairs on her hind legs to scrape the wax from her abdomen. She passes the wax forward to her middle legs, and then to her mandibles. The bee chews the wax until it is pliable, and carefully shapes it into the hexagonal cells that make up the colony's honeycomb.

Worker bees use their mouths to measure the thickness of the honeycomb as they build it, so they know whether more or less wax is needed.

What Is Beeswax?

Beeswax is a secretion produced by worker bees in the family Apidae, but we most often associate it with honey bees (Apis mellifera). It's composition is quite complex.

Beeswax consists mainly of esters of fatty acids (fatty acids combined with alcohol), but over 200 other minor components have been identified in beeswax.

New beeswax is light yellow in color, mainly due to the presence of pollen, but over time it darkens to a golden yellow. Beeswax turns brown from contact with bees and propolis.

Beeswax is a remarkably stable substance that remains solid through a wide temperature range. It has a melting point of 64.5 degrees Celcius, and only becomes brittle when the temperature drops below 18 degrees Celcius. The honeycomb can therefore withstand the temperature fluctuations from season to season, which is key to the honey bee colony's survival through the summer heat and winter cold.

Uses of Beeswax

Like honey, beeswax is a valuable commodity that beekeepers can harvest and sell for many commercial uses. Beeswax is widely used by the cosmetics industry, in everything from lotions to lip balms. Cheese makers use it as a coating to prevent spoilage. Candles have been formed from beeswax since the 6th century. Beeswax is even used in medicines (as a coating), electrical components, and varnishes.

Sources:

  • Encyclopedia of Insects, 2nd edition, edited by Vincent H. Resh and Ring T. Carde.

 

Format
mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Hadley, Debbie. "How Honey Bees Make Beeswax." ThoughtCo, Feb. 9, 2017, thoughtco.com/how-honey-bees-make-beeswax-1968102. Hadley, Debbie. (2017, February 9). How Honey Bees Make Beeswax. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/how-honey-bees-make-beeswax-1968102 Hadley, Debbie. "How Honey Bees Make Beeswax." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/how-honey-bees-make-beeswax-1968102 (accessed October 19, 2017).