One of the most amazing activities in a honeybee’s lifetime is rarely seen by humans and occurs by the workings of numerous architect-minded, honeycomb-building, wax-producing bees.
Building comb is a multi-skill effort, involving bees strung from comb to comb like a tapestry of lacework, hanging together leg to leg in sheets between the frames to build new comb in a process called “festooning.” While festooning, bees measure the open space, create blueprints for future comb, act as self-made scaffolding, promoting stretching of the abdomen which aids in wax production.
Young bees are not able to festoon, as a honeybee needs to be 12-20 days old, when they develop special wax producing glands in the abdomen. The older, developed bees have these four pair of wax glands and participate in the festooning process. As the abdomen is stretched during this chain event, the wax glands are stimulated and wax appears in small, irregular oval flakes or scales that project between the overlapped portions of the last four abdominal segments. Wax can only be secreted at relatively high temperatures and after a large intake of honey or nectar. For the wax-making bees to secrete wax, the ambient temperature in the hive has to be 33 – 36 degrees C.
Approximately eight pounds of honey or nectar is consumed by these bees to produce one pound of beeswax. Building comb is a laborious process, it is estimated that these busy builders fly 150,000 miles to yield this one pound of comb. These small flakes of wax are then collected by other bees and chewed on in their mouths. The bees then construct these pieces of wax together to form a perfect hexagonal shape framework.
The comb serves several purposes in the hive. It is utilized for a nursery to rear the young and store honey and pollen. The comb color varies from yellowish-white to brownish depending on its function in the hive. The brood comb, where the baby bees are reared, is a darker brown due to the consistent traveling of nurse bees across the surface to feed and care for the developing larva. Once an egg is laid in a brood cell, the uncapped larvae is fed a thousand times a day. The sticky cocoons attract all sorts of hive debris, from dirt tracked in on bee feet, pollen grains, and atmospheric dust. Stored honey n is a lighter color, as once the honey is capped, it is not walked across again until the nectar sources are greatly depleted and the bees chew holes in the wax to eat as a backup food source.
Whenever you see honeycomb, know that these structures are one of nature’s greatest accomplishments created by tiny architects working diligently for the benefit of the hive and future generations.
Other Interesting Facts about Honeybees:
- Bees from the same hive visit about 225,000 flowers per day. One single bee usually visits between 50 and 1000 flowers a day, but can visit up to several thousand.
- Queens will lay almost 2,000 eggs a day at a rate of 5 or 6 a minute. Between 175,000 – 200,000 eggs are laid per year. The average hive temperature is 93.5° F.
- Honeybees are the only insects that produce food for humans.
- A single hive contains approximately 40-45,000 bees!
- During honey production periods, a bee’s life span is about 6 weeks.
- Honeybees visit about 2 million flowers to make one pound of honey.
- A bee travels an average of 1,600 round trips in order to produce one ounce of honey; up to 6 miles per trip. To produce 2 pounds of honey, bees travel a distance equal to 4 times around the earth.
- Honey bees are one of the very few invertebrates that engage in a sleep-like behavior, similar in many respects to mammalian sleep.
- Honey bees are one of very few invertebrates that produce a sort of “milk” for their young, Royal Jelly, which is the only food the larvae will eat in early development.
- Like other social insects, Bees have an advanced immune system.
- Bees have specially modified hairs on their body that develop a static electricity charge to attract pollen grains to their bodies.
- Bees navigate by using a combination of memory, visual landmarks, colors, the position of the sun, smell, polarized light, and magnetic anomalies.
Photos courtesy of Jackie Woodcock