People unfamiliar with the topic might ask themselves, “What is honeycomb and how do bees build them?” Honeycombs are a beautifully complex, artfully arranged set of hexagonal shapes made of beeswax. Bees use honeycombs to store and protect their larvae, as well as hold their honey and pollen.
The process of creating honeycombs starts with the bees foraging for pollen and nectar and ends with them chewing honey into beeswax, the substance used to create the honeycombs. Once a hive is fully built, the honeycombs service humans in a variety of ways; they offer us food, medicine, and many other manufacturing applications.
What Is a Honeycomb
A honeycomb is a group of repeating hexagonal beeswax cells that create the interior of a beehive. The hexagon is a shape seen all throughout nature, from animal bone tissue to a plant’s water-transporting tissue called xylem. It is thought that honeycombs are hexagons because their design requires the least amount of material to hold the most amount of weight.
The hexagon works perfectly as a shape for sound storage space. Bees use honeycombs to store their pollen, nectar, water, honey, and larvae. It can take anywhere between seven days to two months for bees to build their honeycomb.
People asking themselves, “What is honeycomb and how do bees build them” should explore how bees forage for honey. As the first step in developing honeycomb, the bees must travel away from their homes in search of pollen and nectar. A bee can travel up to two miles while foraging. Using the three small, single lensed eyes on the top of their heads called ocelli, bees scan the ground for plants that have adapted to attract pollinators.
Bees can see ultraviolet markings on flower petals, signs of pollen and nectar, that are invisible to the human eye. Bees fly to these markings and collect nectar by sucking it up their tongues and storing it in their honey stomach. The nectar will later be useful in the development of honey, and therefore in the development of honeycomb.
Once bees have collected a honey stomach full of nectar, they will return to the hive. From there, they will begin turning the nectar into honey by passing it through their mouths to the mouths of other worker bees. Each bee chews on it for half an hour before passing it on to the next. Over time, this process will evaporate the nectar and turn it into honey. As the bees create honey, wax-producing glands on the undersides of their abdomens turn the sugar into wax, which is squeezed out through small pores.
How To Get the Wax To the Mandibles
The wax first comes to the bees’ abdomens as small flakes. But to turn the flakes into beeswax, bees must move the flakes up to their mandibles, or their moveable jaws, so they can chew and soften the substance. For many years, it was a mystery how bees transferred the flakes from one place to the next. We now know they can use one of two methods:
- Another bee removes the scales for them and does the chewing themselves.
- Using one hind leg, they move the wax scale to the first pair of legs, or the forelegs. From the forelegs, they transfer the scales to the mandibles.
The flakes initially extrude through their pours as transparent. They only become white after being chewed. Their salivary secretions help to soften the flakes, turning it into beeswax. All in all, eight ounces of honey must be consumed to produce one ounce of wax.
Once the beeswax has become a clay-like material, bees will combine large groupings of the wax together to create a honeycomb. This crowding also creates the necessary conditions to keep the hive at the right temperature for honeycomb’s survival.
Beeswax is incredibly sensitive to the temperature in the hive, as it can melt at temperatures around 149 degrees Fahrenheit. It can also become brittle and hard to use if the temperature is too low. By crowding together, bees know to maintain the temperature at 95 degrees Fahrenheit—the perfect temperature for manipulating beeswax.
Beeswax Uses in Food
We already know that bees use honeycombs to protect larvae, nectar, pollen, and honey. But there are so many other uses for beeswax that humans have discovered throughout the years. In terms of food, honeycomb can be eaten as-is in the form of delicious honeycomb honey. It can also be used as a sweetener in homemade desserts. Some other ways honeycomb appears as an ingredient include:
- In a salad
- Alongside fruit, cheese, or charcuterie
- As a spread for warm bread or English muffins
Honeycomb is an excellent source of antioxidants and carbohydrates. It also has trace amounts of nutrients.
Beeswax Uses in Medicine
The medicinal properties of beeswax have made it a common substance in traditional and non-traditional medicine. It is used for lowering cholesterol and relieving pain. Beeswax has also been used to combat ulcers, hiccups, swelling (inflammation), and diarrhea.
Though more studies are needed to confirm their efficacy, there is reason to think beeswax could help with hemorrhoids, ringworm, jock itch, fungal skin infections, and cases of diaper rash.
Beeswax Uses in Manufacturing
There are more than 300 industrial uses for beeswax. It is often used as a wood and leather waterproofing agent. It also strengthens threads and is widely used for candle-making, ointments, polishes, electronic components in CDs, and soaps.
Honeycombs are the hexagonal homemade cells in beehives that bees use to store their larvae, honey, pollen, nectar, and water. Bees are naturally driven to expand their hive to its greatest potential. To that end, they conduct the long process of converting nectar to honey, which in turn gets turned into beeswax and honeycombs.
Beehives work tirelessly to produce their honeycombs. As human beings, we get to enjoy the fruits of their labor. Beeswax is a common food item or ingredient, medicine, and substance used in manufacturing. Honeycomb has proven to be a powerful tool for people. We owe a large debt to our buzzing, flying friends.