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Wax and Combs

§ 38. The combs, hanging downwards perpendicularly from the ceiling or upper part of the hive, are built by the workers, of beeswax, produced by eating honey, much as animals produce fat, and are thus quite expensive, both in labor and material. Before the time of Huber it was generally supposed that wax was made from pollen; but Huber fully demonstrated that bees could construct comb from honey, or sugar syrup without the aid of pollen. However, a few years previously, Duchet, a French writer, had already suggested that beeswax was produced from honey.

§ 39. The production of wax, from which the comb is made is one of the most remarkable phenomena of the organization of the honeybee. The segments or rings of the abdomen of the bee overlap each other, six in number. At the underside of four of these rings are pairs of five-sided, clear, transparent surfaces (Fig. 24), on which the plates or small scales of wax are formed, by a peculiar process of digestion. Each worker-bee is therefore able to produce eight (Fig. 25) small scales of wax. The queens and drones are not supplied with these organs. When a swarm of bees is about to leave its old home and seek another, each bee fills itself with honey.

After entering their new home, the gorged bees suspend themselves in festoons, hanging from the top of the hive. They hang motionless for about 24 hours. During this time the honey has been digested and converted into a peculiar animal fatty product, which collects itself in scales or laminae beneath the abdominal rings (Fig. 25). This is the wax.

Langstroth remarks as follows on the subject:

“It is an interesting fact, which seems hitherto to have escaped notice, that honey-gathering and comb-building go simultaneously; so that when one stops, the other ceases also. As soon as the honey-harvest begins to fail, so that consumption is in advance of production, the bees cease to build new comb, even although large portions of their hives are unfilled. When honey no longer abounds in the fields, it is wisely ordered that they should not consume, in comb-building, the treasures which may be needed for winter use. What safer rule could have been given them?”

The explanation of this fact by natural causes is very easy, and demonstrates the fitness of Nature to call cases. The production of wax is involuntary in the bee, whenever it is compelled to remain a long time with a stomach full of honey. Its production, which is imperceptibly small in ordinary circumstances, increases rapidly as son as conditions demand it. As long as there are plenty of empty cells in the hive to receive the crop, the bees are not compelled to retain honey constantly in their stomachs, and there is only enough wax produced to repair or elongate the cells and seal them. But as soon as the want of room compels many of the bees to remain filled with honey for twenty-four hours or more, a sufficient amount of scales of wax is produced to build combs to store the surplus honey.

§ 40. As colonies usually swarm only during a good honey flow, many of the bees composing the swarm often have scales of wax already produced under the abdominal rings. This explains the great speed and apparent cheapness of production of comb in such circumstances. The honey required for this production was supplied previously.

§ 41. The cells, hexagonal in shape, are built on both sides of a midrib or base, and their adjustment, made in the most economical way that Nature could devise, is such that the base of each cell composed of three lozenges, makes the one-third of the base of three opposite cells (Fig. 84). The greatest economy of space and labor, combined with the greatest possible strength of production, is evidenced in this work. The cells in which the worker-bees are reared measure about five to the inch, or a trifle over twenty-seven to the square inch. The cells in which drones are reared, and of which about ten percent are built in the brood apartment, measure four to the inch, or about eighteen to the square inch. The total for both sides of the comb is, of course, double that number.

The above figures are not of regular exactness. There are slight differences in the sizes of cells. European experimenters have variously reported the worker-cells as numbering from 736 to 854 to the square decimeter. The former number was held preferable in supplying artificial foundation, as larger bees could be secured, in larger cells. But the difficulty arose of an occasional production of drones in these larger worker-cells. The experiments of Mr. Langstroth, reduced to the metric system, showed 838 worker-cells to the square decimeter as the standard number.

A number of cells are built, which are called intermediate cells, when changing from worker to drone-comb (Fig. 28). These intermediate cells, or cells of accommodation, are of irregular shape, and of sizes varying between the other two, according to requirements.

§ 42. Besides the cells already enumerated large cells, hanging downward and shaped like an acorn or a peanut, are found here and there, especially at the edges of the combs (Fig. 5). These are queen-cells (34). In them the queens are reared for swarming or to replace the old queen when she becomes unfertile. The worker and drone cells are used not only for brood-rearing, but also for storing honey. Pollen is almost invariably stored in worker-cells.

§ 43. Queencells seem to be always built from particles of the comb on which they hang (probably because they are built afterwards), and are of the same color, even if newly built on old combs.

§ 44. The thickness of worker combs is about an inch, with a space for the passage of the bees of about seven-sixteenths of an inch, down to five-sixteenths. As these distances may be slightly increased without troubling the bees, we usually place the combs in our hive one and a half inches apart from center to center. It increases the ease of manipulation (92).

§ 45. The cells are not placed horizontally, but incline slightly downwards from front to rear.

§ 46. It is estimated that from seven to fifteen pounds of honey are required to be consumed by the bees to produce a pound of comb. The quantity undoubtedly varies greatly according to the conditions in which the bees find themselves when the comb is built. The greatest amount is secured during a strong honey-flow, in a summer temperature. Excessive heat is objectionable only, in this connection, when sufficient to render the wax too soft and cause a break-down. “Blood heat” is undoubtedly the most satisfactory.

The great cost of wax to the bees has caused apiarists to devise methods whereby the beeswax produced from combs that have been melted may be returned to the bees in the shape of comb foundation, forming the base of the comb, which will be mentioned in a separate chapter (132).

§ 47. At first when the combs are built, they are generally transparently white, but with age and use for brood-rearing they become dark and opaque. The thin cocoons lining the cells help to make them so; such are, however, just as valuable for breeding purposes for a long time, or until the size is materially diminished. They are also valuable for storing honey, where the extractor is used. During a harvest of honey and pollen of deep yellow or amber shade, the comb promptly assumes that color, though white when first secreted.
 

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