bee biology beeswax

And now . . . normal wax scales

Back in September I wrote about the wax scales that were so prominently displayed in a photo by Debbe Krape of Delaware. Since then Zachary Huang, a bee researcher at Michigan State University, sent me the following photo of a “normal” set of wax scales.

In my post, I wrote that, “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.

According to Zachary, the bee in Debbe’s photo had secreted four to eight layers of wax. The layers hardened one atop the other to give the very thick, blocky looking scales in her photo. I thought it would be useful to see the normal condition next to a very unusual one.

Debbe found her bee outside the hive. My theory is that the poor bee somehow got separated from her comb-building cohorts and the wax secretions just kept coming. Normally bees secreting wax don’t stray far from where they are working, but this bee was definitely in the wrong place at the wrong time, and her wax scales just kept getting thicker and thicker.

By the way, if you haven’t had a chance to see Zachary’s bee photos you can catch them at Cyberbee. Still more of his photos can be seen at his blog, Bee the Best. If you love great bee pics the way I do, Zachary’s work is a treat.


wax_scales_Zachary Huang

This photo shows normal wax scales being secreted by a worker bee. These are one layer thick. Photo courtesy of Zachary Huang.


This bee strayed from the comb-building area and was photographed outside the hive. The scales from her abdomen are probably 4 to 8 layers thick, an abnormal situation. Photo courtesy of Debbe Krape.

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  • That is very interesting Rusty! As a new beekeeper I have received two conflicting sets of advice, the first is to save, save, save that comb as providing comb frees bees up to make honey, not comb, and that every unit of comb takes 12 units of honey…so providing comb boosts honey harvests. The second piece of wisdom (from several older beekeepers) is that providing comb does nothing to boost honey production and that fresh comb is better for the bees. If bees make wax involuntarily, as the bee in the photo seems to have done, then there is no point in saving them the labour of comb construction; the wax will be made anyway. I believe it is the very young home bees who make the wax, so at least they are not giving up nectar gathering time to make comb. I have yet to turn up a good study on this topic . . . have you?

    • Actually, I think the issue is complex. I don’t think the colony will produce much wax if it isn’t needed. But once an individual starts producing, she probably can’t “turn it off” at will. More likely it will taper off.

      As for the controversy, I agree with both sides to some extent, but not totally with either. Very few things in beekeeping are black and white. Certainly, if you start two colonies on the same day, one with a supply of comb and one without, the one with comb will get a roaring head start on honey production. Does this lead persist throughout the season? I’m not sure. Colonies without a head start do a brillinat job of catching up. Also, I think fresh comb is better for bees because it harbors fewer pests and pathogens. But given a choice, bees seem to prefer older and darker comb.

      I think the biggest mistake we make as beekeepers is assuming we know a lot about bees. Not a day goes by when they don’t surprise me, or when I don’t learn something new.

  • Rusty –

    Since we’re talking about what bees can do at various developmental stages – and feeling sorry for them (me too Emily!) – I’ve felt sorry for every bee that stung me since age 5 when my mother explained that I shouldn’t cry, the poor bee was dead and it only stung me because I stepped on it – (Catholic, why?) – is it possible that the very aggressive and uncompromising guard bees who come zinging at you when the rest are just going about their business, are worn-out foragers who have nothing left to give the colony but their lives? It would make more sense than to lose an otherwise productive worker.

    Also I read somewhere that there is flexibility in the stages: that if the colony needs it, a worker at one stage can progress or regress a stage if her present capability is less needed. Seems only to apply to those at the edge of a stage. So they wouldn’t necessarily have to produce superfluous wax.

    The more you read, the more wonderful they seem.

    • Nan,

      It is my understanding that guard duty comes before foraging duty. Not all bees become guards, but those that do are older than nurses and house bees but younger than foragers. Just think, you wouldn’t want a bunch of old ladies holding down the fort.

      And, yes, there is flexibility between stages when the colony needs it. I’ve read that even wax secretion can begin again if duty calls.

  • Hi Rusty, I came across a fascinating blog a short while ago when searching for specific bee and lupin information. I have asked the author of it, Robyn Carter, who calls herself the Ambling Rambler for permission for me to pass on these photos from a part of her blog. If you would like the photo’s any particular size she said you can make contact with her for them. I’ve never done this before so I hope it comes over properly. Bye for now.

  • Thanks for the links to Dr. Huang’s photos! Great photos!
    I got a kick out of that mob on the Lotus. 🙂

    Kent WA

  • Hi Rusty,

    I also recently saw a few bees with thick wax scale like your other photo. These were bees sampled from inside a brood nest. I am still not sure what causes this! The bee in your photo, I think the wax scales are at least 6 or perhaps more like 10. Each individual wax scale is like paper thin.

    • Zachary,

      I’m glad you found some and got to see them up close. If you figure out why it happens, please keep me posted.

  • Okay, on the subject of wax: I’ve melted down my wax cappings always to use for other products (lip balm, lotion, etc). However, I recently read of a person putting their washed cappings back on the hive so that the bees could recycle them instead of producing new wax. This seems a very unlikely scenario to me: have you ever heard of such a thing? I wonder if the person had gotten advice to put their cappings back on the hive for the bees to clean up, but didn’t “get” that part, and assumed the wax would be recycled. What do you think?

    • Sarah,

      Sometimes honey bees reuse a bit of wax. For example, I’ve seen them take wax from a piece of foundation and use it elsewhere. That said, I think it has to be their idea on their terms. I can’t imagine they would have much use for a pile of cappings. Usually, when the bees are done cleaning the honey, they just ignore the cappings. Could they sometimes use them? I don’t see why they couldn’t, but I wouldn’t count on it either. I say use your cappings however you want and don’t worry about it.