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.