Honey bees live in self-manufactured, waxy combs that make up an entire hive. These hives serve as homes and repositories for their food supply (honey, nectar, and pollen) and eggs laid by their queen to produce the next generation of bees. The answer of how bees make wax was once a mystery until science unlocked the mechanics behind the process, revealing an alchemical transformation. This beneficial beeswax is used by bees, other animals, and humans as a food source, a financial tool, and in households and businesses around the world.
What Is Beeswax?
Beeswax is a complex substance bees secrete to manufacture and repair combs. These waxy combs are a series of interlocking hexagonal shaped tubes composed of fatty acids, hydrocarbons, and proteins. The easiest way to explain beeswax is by saying that it's a secretion produced by worker bees.
When new beeswax is developed, it's yellow in color. The reason for that is due to the presence of pollen. Then over time, it gets darker and becomes golden yellow. It will turn brown after contact with bees and propolis.
Beeswax remains solid throughout a wide temperature range. It becomes brittle when the temperature drops below 18 degrees Celsius and has a melting point at 64.5 degrees Celsius. That means that the honeycomb can withstand temperature fluctuations from one season to the other. That's important so that the honey bee colony can survive in the heat and the cold.
Why Do Bees Make Wax?
This is one of the aspects that beekeepers first learn. The production of wax is crucial to the vitality of a beehive. Many people assume that bees collect some type of material to build their nests, but they actually produce them!
How Bees Make Beeswax?
The process of how bees make wax is complex and depends on many factors. In a bee colony, there are three types of bees: the queen, the worker, and the drone. The queen mates and lays eggs. Drones are male bees whose sole function is to breed with the queen.
Finally, worker bees are sterile females who do everything, including taking care of and feeding the young, the queen, and the drones; producing wax to create and maintain the hive; cleaning the hive; gathering nectar and pollen; making honey and guarding the nest against enemies. Only young worker bees have wax glands. The oldest worker bees and the queen bee do not have wax glands.
Honeybees develop a special wax-producing gland in their abdomen when they are between 12 and 20 days old. This gland converts sugar into a waxy substance from the sugar and also deposits substance flakes on the abdomen.
Do All Bees Make Wax?
No, not all bees produce wax! Only worker bees do. Worker bees are female and are the only ones that have wax glands.
The best wax producer are young adults, around 14 to 18 days old. But, older workers are able to produce wax when it's needed.
Factors Necessary for Wax Production
The first step in how bees make wax can only begin when there is an adequate supply of honey in the bees’ colony. Worker bees must consume pollen during the first 5 to 6 days of their life because it contains a high amount of protein needed for the development of fat cells. Pollen is mixed with honey to create “bee bread” that worker bees feed the developing larvae.
Wax Gland Producing Stage
Then at about a week old, the emerging worker bee develops a unique wax-producing gland inside her abdomen. As the secretory activity increases in this wax gland, the cell walls become tall and slender and have large intercellular spaces. The wax glands are most productive in worker bees approximately 12 to 18 days old.
Nectar Gathering and Honey Conversion Stage
The third step in how bees make wax involves older worker bees leaving the hive to forage and collect nectar from flowers. Nectar is essentially just a sugary fluid flowers produce to entice bees to pollinate their species. The bees store the nectar in a special honey stomach different from their food stomach. Once the worker bee fills this sac, she flies back to the hive.
This foraging bee delivers the nectar to another worker bee through a mouth-to-mouth exchange process. During this process, the moisture content of the nectar is reduced from 70% to 20%. This changes the nectar into honey. Sometimes nectar is stored in the honeycomb cells before being passed mouth-to-mouth because the warm temperature inside the hive causes water content in the nectar to evaporate.
The Production of Wax
The fourth step in how bees make wax requires young worker bees engaged in secreting wax to engorge themselves with honey. The wax gland, an organ located on the underside of the last four segments of their body, converts the sugar content of honey into tiny flakes or scales. The worker bees discharge these wax flakes through eight tiny slits from their underbelly. Other worker bees collect the discharged wax flakes, chew it until it becomes soft and malleable, and then mold it to construct new combs, repair existing combs, and cap the openings of cells.
Temperature Necessary to Work Wax
The right temperature in the hive is crucial in how bees make wax. It must be maintained at a steady temperature in order to manipulate wax and allow it to be at the right consistency for construction. This temperature is between 93 to 96 degrees Fahrenheit year round. This allows bees to work the wax easily.
If the temperature gets too high, the wax becomes too soft and will not hold its shape. If the temperature reaches 149 degrees Fahrenheit or more, the wax will melt. If the temperature gets too cold, the wax becomes brittle and breaks.
The End Cycle of Wax Production
After producing wax for several days, the worker bees’ wax glands begin to degenerate. By the time the worker bee becomes a field bee and is ready to leave the hive, the wax glands have totally degenerated. At this point, the worker bee is about 21 days of age. However, the emergence of the next generation of bees takes over and continues the function of producing wax.
This multilayered, time-consuming process is how bees make wax. It is estimated that bees must consume approximately 6 to 8 pounds of honey to manufacture just 1 pound of wax. A beehive contains about 10,000 to 60,000 bees. The greater the number of bees, the more effective the hive is at producing honey, and the more wax it can manufacture for the hive to grow and care for the bees.
How is Beeswax Used?
Beeswax is used by bees, humans, and other creatures in many ways.
How Bees Use Beeswax
Bees use the wax they produce to protect themselves against water loss and in the construction of combs and their overall hive.
How Humans Use Beeswax
For thousands of years, humans have used beeswax for a variety of purposes including body care products, food consumption, household uses, industrial manufacturing and many more.
Benefits to the Skin
In the cosmetic industry, beeswax is used as a non-toxic, natural protectant, hydrating, and thickening ingredient. It thickens creams and make-up, making them more spreadable and easier to use on the skin. Unlike petroleum-based products, beeswax does not suffocate the skin’s pores, allowing them to breathe and preventing clogged pores and acnes.
The following are Some of the Most Powerful Benefits of Beeswax:
Beeswax as a Food Product or Ingredient
Beeswax assists with molding and locking in food flavors. It is used to make jelly beans, gummy bears, and similar candies. It can also be eaten in its natural honeycomb state in salads and as a sweet dessert.
Household Uses for Beeswax
Over time, people have come up with hundreds of uses for beeswax in everyday household chores. The following are some household uses:
Industrial Manufacturing Uses
Beeswax is a major commodity produced and sold by many countries. It is versatile and has over 300 industrial uses. Some top producers of beeswax are India, Ethiopia, Argentina, South Korea, Turkey, Kenya, Angola, Mexico, Tanzania, and Spain. Many of the uses of beeswax are in the cosmetic and pharmaceutical industries. Some of these industrial uses are:
Beeswax Used by Other Animals
Honey badgers, bears, raccoons, possums, skunks, elephants, and many other animals eat the entire honeycomb, wax, honey, and all.
The process of how bees make wax is complex, intensive, and time-consuming. But this natural and powerful product has benefited bees, animals, and humans for thousands of years. It is important to ensure the health and wellbeing of bees by planting flowers and plants they feed on, monitoring the kinds of toxic chemicals used in their environments, and educating people about the tremendous impact they have upon the planet. Their work of collecting nectar and pollen ensures the survival of various plant species and feeds generations of humans, animals, and other insects.
Bees are amazing, diligent, and tireless creatures. Thanks to their two great products, honey, and beeswax, billions of Earth's inhabitants can enjoy their products as a food source and financial resource to better their lives.