Beeswax and Comb Building


Many of our readers are relative new-bees. Thus, this section focuses on bee basics, many of them excerpted from writings by the late Walter T. Kelley, our founder. The following is from the highly recommend publication: HOW TO KEEP BEES AND SELL HONEY by Walter T. Kelley.
Beeswax, the material used by honeybees in the construction of their combs, is a product of their own bodies. It is secreted by certain glands possessed by workers only. Wax glands are at the height of their development and productivity in bees 12 to 18 days old.

The wax appears in the form of small, irregularly oval flakes, or scales which project from between the overlapped portions of the last four abdominal segments visible an the underside of the bee.

Two scales are produced on each of these segments, one on either side of the midventral line, making eight in all. Wax can be secreted only at relatively high temperatures, stated by different authors at from 92 to 97 degrees Fahrenheit, and after the consumption of relatively large amounts of honey or nectar.

Workers actively engaged in secreting wax gorge themselves with honey and hang in festoons at or near the site of building operations. Here they hang very quietly while their organs of digestion and secretion transform the content of their honey sacs into energy and beeswax, and after about 24 hours they begin to build comb.

If the bees are watched closely during the height of the honey harvest, or if at other times a colony of bee is fed heavily on sugar syrup for three days during warm weather there will be found toward tie the second or third day little pearly discs somewhat resembling fish scales, protruding from between the rings of the underside of the body of the bee.

The wax scales are scraped off by one of the hind legs, the hairy spines of the leg piercing or catching into the scale; then the hind leg, by a peculiar maneuvering, is moved up to where the forelegs may grasp the scale.

At this point of proceedings the scale is manipulated or masticated in the mandibles, then it is applied to the comb.

During the process the bee stands on three legs (the two middle legs on either side, and one hind leg not in action), while the other hind leg and the two forelegs, in connection with the mandibles, perform the manipulation.

Comb Building

If a bee is obliged to carry one of these wax scales but a short distance, it takes it in its mandibles and looks as business like with it as a carpenter with a board on his shoulder. If it has to carry it a distance it takes it in a way that is difficult to explain any better than to say it somehow slips it under its chin.

When thus equipped, one would never know it was encumbered with anything unless it chances to slip out, when it will dexterously tuck it back with one of its forefeet.

The little plate of wax is so warm from being kept under its chin as to be quite soft when it gets back. As it takes it out and gives it a pinch against the comb where the building is going on, one would think it might stop awhile and put it in place; but not that bee, for off it scampers and twists around so many different ways one might think it was not one of the working kind at all.

Another follows after it sooner or later and gives the wax a pinch, or a little scraping and burnishing with its polished mandibles, then another, and so on; and the sum total of all these maneuvers is that the combs seem almost to grow out of nothing; but no one bee ever makes a cell.

The finished comb is the result of the united efforts of the moving, restless mass and the great mystery is that anything so wonderful can ever result at all from such a mixed up, skipping about way of working as they seem to have.

On the under-lapped portion of the four abdominal segments are published oval spaces known as mirrors. They are the areas of the abdominal segment covered internally by the wax-secreting glands.

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