Wax is produced by bees to create their home. The external walls of the cavity they occupy (be that hive, tree, chimney) will have been assessed for suitability by the scout bees before moving in, and as the combs will form an essential part of the bees’ “body”, it is equally essential that the cavity will contain and secure the combs effectively. They build a specific distance apart called the ‘bee space’ which means the bees pass each other closely as they go about their duties, creating important warmth from the friction, and distributing the unique hive scent exuded by the queen which maintains balance and harmony, and as the bees travel around and under and between the combs they are constantly inputting data to the hive mind on the running of the colony.
When I teach my courses, I explain that the honey bee organism consists of 3 elements: the hive, the combs, and the bees. These elements work as a unit, and it’s easy but incorrect to regard them as interchangeable separate parts, just as regarding the skin, organs, and skeleton of our own bodies as separate entities leads to a skewed picture. The combs form the internal organs of the bee colony, and when bees occupy the nest they create a ‘bee sandwich’, so a layer of bees; comb; bees; comb; which regulates temperature and humidity as the bees move between them. It retains warmth above and around the colony too, essential for correct development of the larvae.
When we see bees gathered on combs it’s easy to think they are individuals walking around on top of it but it’s actually looking inside the bee body: think of the bees moving over the combs as the equivalent of blood moving around our vascular system.
I allow my colonies to build their own combs as it is this allows the most advantageous configuration for the bees, as they can adapt the combs to the spaces according to temperature and airflow, and they can remould the combs to a certain extent to accommodate changes. They also arrange what cells they want where, be it drone comb, honey storage or queen cells.
The honey cells tend to be slightly less uniform in depth: they are not incubation units so it is not so crucial – see top middle picture in the gallery above. Brood cells for both workers (females) and drones (males) are symmetrical and an exact depth, and when the bee hatches, it leaves behind a papery pupal case:
There is a marked difference between cell size of the sexes within the nest both in width and depth, and the bees construct their drone comb on the periphery as the drones are only raised in the spring, their primary role being to mate with the new queens who only emerge in the later spring and early summer. Once the drones have been expelled in autumn, the larger cells are backfilled with nectar. In this comb from a Warré hive, the bees have put a patch of drone comb amongst the worker cells. Notice also the access hole and curved edge of the shorter section:
Bees anchor their combs to the upper surface and build down, and will often start with more than one ‘tongue’ of wax then join them up as they meet across the width of the cavity, which is what has happened in the comb above. They sense gravity with the hairs on their body in order to build the combs straight down, but the horizontal plane is far less obliged to conform, and bees can (and will!) build all sorts of weird and wonderful shapes to fill the space. The vast majority of them build straight across, and if we give them bars or frames with a starter strip of wax or a protrusion from which they can build in the case of top bars and some Warrés, this can encourage them to do so. Learning to read what is going on with your bees without having to remove every frame is an essential skill to hone, even if your bees build perfectly within the frame.
Here are some wild nests, and some examples of bees making use of the space in their own inimitable style:
What does this have to do with regenerative beekeeping? It takes a lot of fuel to build wax, which is why many beekeepers give the bees pressed wax – foundation – to reduce the energy consumed. This means much of the colony’s “body” is made from wax from any number of blended sources, and it also restricts the construction to worker cells (drone comb is discouraged) and reduces the ability of the bees to respond to the internal conditions in the hive. Wax building is also a regulatory function in that because of the energy cost, it requires bees to allocate their resources according to the external environment. It is mainly young, newly hatched bees who construct the combs, although the older, foraging bees can reinstate their wax glands if need be. If there is masses of forage, the bees have the raw materials to raise more workers, who hatch and eat the plentiful food to build new cells quickly in order to store it. It is a well-organised system that has evolved to produce an elastic response to a nectar flow, hence honey bees’ resilience and success compared to other pollinators as they can deploy a vast workforce in short order to exploit a resource. This is a natural reaction to large quantities of incoming nectar, and if we want our bees to draw on that responsiveness to the environment, we have to allow them to do so. We also need to keep this fact at the forefront when considering the competitive impact of even a single hive we install in our garden or apiary.
Many standard beekeeping practices enhance this already impressive behaviour and override it further in order to increase honey production. Perpetually boosting a honey bee colony with sugar and drawn wax and resources taken from other hives upsets the natural balance that bees have developed over millennia, and disadvantages native pollinators in the process. With regenerative beekeeping, we can use the natural capacity to gather food to show us what is happening in the environment. Using the amount of activity at the entrance, coupled with the speed with which the bees build wax demonstrates a much more representative expression of colony health and growth than simply how quickly the bees fill and cap a box full of honey, as it illustrates a working colony with a range of healthy bees at all stages of development. It can show how effective our forage-provision strategies are, and reminds us that a diverse range of plants that flower at different times is best if we are wanting to help a wider range of species rather than the boom and bust of crops.
There is also the potential for bee-built combs to be tested for pesticide residues, heavy metal contamination, accumulation of contaminants as the nectar consumed in the locality will be reflected in the wax built. There is currently not a ‘domestic’ option for this as far as I know, but if we could work out a way for a lab to test pollen, honey, and wax for these things it would be tremendously informative. Ideas, anyone??
Here is a skep with some bee built comb, showing the bee space and a few queen cells at the edges, and a beautiful wobbly edge:
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