Beeswax and Comb Building

Beeswax and Honey are natural wonders, the Wax allows the Bees to create huge, complex structures and the Honey is naturally anti-microbial and incredibly long lasting without going bad. Honey has been found within Ancient Egyptian tombs that are ~3,000 years old that is still perfectly edible. This is due to its high sugar and low water content.

Both Honey and Beeswax are natural products created by the Bees from the Nectar they gather. Further information on Honey production can be found in - Bees, Flowers and Honey.

Beeswax is vital for the colony as it is the material used to build their combs, on which all activity in the colony relies.

Wax Glands in the Worker Bee's abdomen produce the Wax as small scales which is then passed to the mouth of other Bees to be shaped and softened before being added to the comb.

Making wax takes a lot of resources, to make 1g of Wax, the Bees must consume ~7g of Honey. This is why Beekeepers usually provide the Bees with foundation so that Honey is not lost building comb from scratch.

Wax being secreted by a worker

In the wild, Bees will create “U” shaped comb hanging in flat disks. The wide top where the comb attaches allows for the most surface area to secure the comb below. The comb narrows at the bottom, therefore becoming lighter and putting less strain on the attached surface.

The same comb building can be seen in a top bar Hive, where the Bees are given no foundation, and so replicate the wild shape.

Wild Honey Bee Comb

Top Bar Hive Comb

Why Hexagons?

When building comb, the Bees have evolved to create hexagonal shaped cells.

This shape has been shown by mathematicians to be the most efficient structure that could be possibly used to build any structure, giving the perfect balance of strength and space. The Hexagon gives the largest volume for the lowest use of materials, that has no wasted space between the shapes.

The video below shows a explanation of why Bees use Hexagons for cells:-

Mathematically, the shape that gives the largest volume with the smaller perimeter is the circle. It is therefore the most efficient shape to make a container, using the least amount of Wax.

However, this efficiency is only true for individual circles. If you try to make a large number of these side by side, then there is a large amount of wasted space that can't be used, as can be seen in the image below:-

Circles with wasted space between

A more efficient use of space would be to use a shape that fits together without leaving any gaps. If a repeating pattern of a shape can be fitted together without leaving gaps, then the shapes can be said to Tessellate. There are only three regular shapes that can tessellate without wasting any space.

They are:-




But all of these shapes will have different sizes of perimeter when compared to volume. Triangles have the largest perimeter by volume, then Squares, then Hexagons. This can be seen in the following image:-

As can be seen above, the Hexagon (in red) is the closest to being circular and therefore has the largest internal volume by size for the Tessellating shapes.

So when Bees build Comb, they take the compromise between best use of materials (as close to a circle as possible) and the best use of space (leaving no gaps). The shape which best fits this compromise is the Hexagon.

This efficiency through Tessellation can be seen time and again throughout architecture and the natural World, creating some beautiful structures:-

Islamic Architecture

Natural Tessellation

The Bee Space

The "Bee Space" is the gap that Bees leave between Combs so the space is used efficiently, but also they can still move about freely.

The accepted value for the Bee Space is ~4mm for a single worker to access, or ~9mm for Workers moving back to back (for example working on adjacent Combs).

The image below shows an example of the Bee Space for the efficient use of space in a Wild Honey Bee colony:-

If the gap is smaller than 4mm then the Bees will seal it with Propolis. Propolis is the Bee equivalent of glue and is made from a mixture of saliva and tree resin. Bees use it prevent draughts or smaller insects sneaking in by sealing these small gaps and it is this substance that is why a Hive tool is required to pry apart boxes.

Propolis can also be used to mummify dead organisms like mice, which are too big to carry out of the Hive, to prevent them rotting within it.

Propolis on a frame

Mouse embalmed in Propolis

If the gap between the Combs is larger than the 9mm Bee Space, the Bees will construct Brace Comb to reduce the gap to the correct size. This Brace Comb can make it difficult to remove frames from a Hive without damaging the Comb.

Brace Comb on Queen Excluder

Brace COmb on Frames

In order to prevent the issues shown above, Beekeepers make sure that all gaps (as much as possible) match the size of the Bee Space. There are several ways to ensure this:-

  1. Hive design - All modern Hives are designed in such a way that they give the correct Bee Space between Boxes (for example, Brood Box and Super). The Langstroth, WBC and Smith Hives have top bar Bee Space (above the frames in a box) and the National has bottom bar Bee Space (below the frames in a box). This means that equipment shouldn't be mixed between the different types.

  2. Hoffman frames - Hoffman frames are standard Hive frames which are self-spacing due to the addition of side bars that keep the frames at the Bee Space.

  3. Castellated Spacers - Castellated spacers can be placed along the top of the box to keep the frames at the correct Bee Space.

Hoffman Frame with sidebars

Sidebars keeping Bee Space

Castellated Spacer

Harvesting Beeswax

Beeswax is a very useful byproduct of Beekeeping. Once the Honey has been extracted from the Comb, the Comb can then be processed to separate and clean the Beeswax for use in a range of products.

When the Honey extraction process is complete the empty Comb is quite dirty, containing Honey residue, debris and insect fragments and so requires cleaning before it can be used. This process is known as rendering the Beeswax.

Unprocessed Beeswax

Stage one - Debris removal

All wax should be collected together, including the cappings from the comb, with any large bits of debris removed. The wax is then wrapped in cheesecloth and heated in a pan of water to cause the wax to melt. The liquid wax passes through the cheesecloth, whilst the debris remains trapped within it. The wax-filled water is then poured into a mould to cool and solidify. The wax floats to the top and most of the debris will sink to the bottom.

Wax water Produced by heating

Discoloured solidified Wax

Stage two - Filtering

The cooled Wax can range from bright yellow to dull brown depending on how many small impurities are still within the wax. In order to to remove these, the wax is again heated then passed through a fine mesh filter (for example a coffee filter or linen) to remove any remaining small impurities.

As the wax is very flammable, the solid wax is not heated directly, but instead is heated using a bain-marie set up (same as when melting chocolate) to stop it burning.

The wax is again then poured into a mold and allowed to solidify. The result should be a pure, yellow block of Beeswax.

A bain-marie for melting wax

Filtering using linen

Pure Beeswax

The videos below show the stages of harvesting and rendering Beeswax, as well as some of the products this can be used for:-

Beeswax (Small Scale)

Beeswax (Industrial scale)

Beeswax has a lot of useful properties, including:-

  1. Chemical composition - Beeswax is a complex substance. It is made up of well over 250 compounds, including long-chain alkanes, acids, esters, polyesters and more.

  2. Insoluble in water - Beeswax is insoluble in water, which allows it to be used for many applications as a sealant.

  3. Low melting point - Beeswax has a relatively low melting point of around 63°C. This means it is easy to transform from solid to liquid and vice versa, which is useful for a wide range of applications.

  4. Smokeless burn - Beeswax has a low carbon, smokeless burn which is a key reason why it is used in candles.

Because of these properties, there are many uses for Beeswax, including:-

  1. Candle Making - Beeswax burns readily and cleanly, and this material was traditionally used for the making of the making of church candles.

  2. Medical Bone Wax - Beeswax is an ingredient in bone wax, which is used during surgery to control bleeding from bone surfaces.

  3. Wax polish - Wax is used as a major component of wood polishes, leather polishes, and can be used to wax surfboards.

  4. Food preservation - Beeswax is used as a coating for cheese or waxed wrapping paper; by sealing out the air, protection is given against mold growth.

  5. Cosmetics - Beeswax is used in lip balm, lip gloss, hand creams, salves, and moisturizers; and in cosmetics such as eye shadow, blush, and eye liner. It is also an important ingredient in moustache wax and hair waxes, which make hair look sleek and shiny.

  6. Art & jewelry making - Beeswax can be used to create molds for jewelry through the Lost-Wax casting method. It can also be used within Encaustic Art (hot wax painting, involves using heated beeswax to which colored pigments are added, with the melted wax then applied to a surface).