What is honeycomb?

Posted by John B on

One of the best ways to think of honey is to understand it as a canned food source for bees.  During the wintertime, when the honey bees are not able to forage for nectar from blooming flowers, they need to have a readily available source of carbohydrates and protein.  To accomplish this, the worker bees spend the Spring and Summer months industriously preparing for the coming Winter.  With worker bees set to specialized tasks like comb building, foraging, and fanning, the colony will store enough honey and pollen to survive the winter.  The honey and pollen are stored in hexagonal cells called honeycomb; a shape that is as ubiquitous with bees as honey, a bee smoker, or Winnie the Pooh.  But what exactly is honeycomb?  How is it made and how do the bees use it?

Honeycomb cells with honeybees

In order to construct the hive, the honey bees employ the use of beeswax to create the living space necessary to thrive.  Beeswax, a natural wax produced by honeybees, is used to make any type of comb seen in the hive.  The beeswax comb is used to rear brood, store food, and fill in gaps that are too large within the hive.  When a worker bee is around 10 to 12 days old, their wax glands fully develop, allowing her to produce beeswax and contribute to the expansion of the hive.  Worker bees have four pairs of glands on the underside of their abdomen that secrete wax “scales.”  These wax scales, when long enough, are harvested by the bee and chewed to soften the wax for easy manipulation and addition to existing comb.  Within the hive, the hexagonal cells of honeycomb will be used to store honey and pollen.  The worker bees naturally separate the excess honey stores and the brood chamber, which stores eggs, larvae, and developing worker bees.  The honeycomb that is harvested for consumption is what is referred to as “virgin honeycomb,” or honeycomb that has never been used to house eggs, larvae, or developing brood.  Virgin honeycomb is strictly used to store excess honey.  Comparing virgin honeycomb and brood comb side by side, it is easy to identify the difference between the two.  Virgin comb is much lighter in color while brood comb is often a dark brown, sometimes even black, color,  

Frame of brood comb covered in honeybees

The wax that the young house bees produce from their 8 wax glands consists of at least 284 compounds.  The exact composition of beeswax will vary by location, like so many other aspects of the beehive.  Remarkably useful, beeswax is employed throughout the hive for a range of tasks.  Because of its utility, beeswax has been harvested and used by humankind for thousands of years.  With a melting point just over 140 degrees Fahrenheit, beeswax has a range of uses that span countless industries from woodworking to body care.  In order to produce the wax, worker bees must consume an enormous amount of honey; in essence, beeswax is super-concentrated honey.  It takes roughly 8 ounces of honey to produce 1 ounce of beeswax.  To construct the comb in the vacant spaces within the hive, the bees will link together, arm in arm, to span the distance between two points.  This linking of bodies to form a string of bees has often been compared to the game “monkeys in a barrel” as the worker bees cling to one another in a long chain.  This “monkey in a barrel” behavior is called festooning with the chain of bees itself is called a festoon.  This behavior is most often seen when bees are building new comb.

Honeycomb is a remarkable hive product.  Constructed of beeswax and used to store food and house developing bees, honeycomb is a natural wonder.  Cherished for its delicious liquid gold and waxy texture, it’s nature’s best kept sweet secret. 


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