Waxing eloquent

The photo of a honey bee secreting wax caused quite a stir because it is a phenomenon we don’t often see. Bees secreting wax usually stay close to where it will be used and they tend to move little during the process. Secreting beeswax is such an energy-intensive endeavor that each bee conserves as much energy as possible by staying in one place.

Honey bees have four pairs of wax glands on the ventral side of abdominal segments 4 through 7. The ability of worker bees to produce wax increases gradually from birth and peaks when the bees are 12 to 18 days old. After that period, the workers are shifted to other duties and their ability to produce wax wanes.

The segments where wax is produced are equipped with smooth surfaces called mirrors or plates. The clear liquid wax flows in a thin layer over the plates where it hardens into little white disks that look like fish scales or ice flakes. If the disk remains in place, the bee may add another liquid layer over the first, creating a thicker disk.

When the wax is ready to be used, the bee passes a scale forward from one pair of legs to the next until she can grasp it with her mouth parts. The bee chews the scale, adding secretions from her mandibular glands, until it is pliable enough to be used. The bee then adds her piece of wax to the developing comb, pinching it in place, smoothing the joints, and polishing the surface. Each wax scale takes about four minutes to prepare.

Some other wax facts:

  • According to Jürgen Tautz in The Buzz about Bees, 100 grams of wax requires 125,000 wax scales, and can be used to build 8000 cells of comb.
  • According to the ABC and XYZ of Bee Culture, bees must eat 7 or 8 pounds of honey to produce one pound of beeswax.
  • According to How to Keep Bees and Sell Honey by Walter T. Kelley, wax can only be secreted at temperatures from 92 to 97 degrees F (33-36 °C).
  • Jürgen Tautz also tells us that beeswax is composed of more than 300 different chemical compounds.
  • The melting point of beeswax is 144-147 °F (62-64 °C) and the flash point is 399.9 °F (204.4 °C).

Once built, the bees use their comb as a shelter, fortress, pantry, nursery, bulletin board, communications platform (dance floor), and resting place. And now, another look at that fascinating photo.

Rusty
HoneyBeeSuite

A honey bee worker has four pairs of wax glands in its ventral abdominal segments. It is unclear why this bee was outside the hive. Photo by Debbe Krape.
A honey bee worker has four pairs of wax glands in its ventral abdominal segments. It is unclear why this bee was outside the hive. Photo by Debbe Krape.

Comments

Lisa G.
Reply

What a fantastic photo!!! thank you for all your invaluable information. I love this site. I have learned to much from reading your posts. Thanks for sharing Rusty…

Danielle D.
Reply

I’m working on an article for our monthly newsletter about beeswax, so this article could not be more timely! Would it be possible for me to use this photograph in the electronic version of our newsletter? I would give full credit and add a clickable link that would take readers back to this article and photo.
Thanks!

Rusty
Reply

Danielle,

You may use it if, as you state, you give credit and a link back. Thank you for asking.

phil gladding
Reply

This is a great picture. Thank you so very much…Phil

Emily
Reply

Great post!

Rebecca Wilson
Reply

Rusty,

I love your blog, and have been reading it for a while now. That is really an amazing image!

I would also like to do the same as Danielle, and of course full credit and links back. May I use the image and some of your wax facts in our monthly newsletter also?

Thanks much,
Rebecca
VP, Beekeepers Association of SWFL

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