Updated: 4th March 2020
When you think of the wax made by bees, the first thing that may spring to mind might be a candle or a pot of beeswax furniture polish. This stuff is made by honey bees, and it may leave you wondering how bees make wax, and why. It may also leave you wondering how it is harvested from the beehive, and whether the bees mind us taking it.
In looking at this question, we're also going to cover off wax made by other bee species, and how it differs from that made by honey bees.
The wax is secreted from glands on the underside of the abdomen – see this diagram revealing Honey Bee Anatomy.
Most of the wax is produced by young worker bees. All workers are female. The glands that
secrete the wax will reduce in size as the bee grows and matures, and eventually
takes on foraging duties. After young bees have secreted wax from their
abdomens, other worker bees then gather it up ready for use.
Wax is used by honey bees to construct the individual cells that compose the honeycomb as well as the cells for rearing young bees. In the image above you can see comb built by bees in a natural nest.
Below you can see a honey bee larva in a wax cell. You can read about the honey bee life cycle here.
Wax is also used by bees at the end of the process of honey making. When the nectar that has been collected by the bees and placed into the honeycombs is ready, the bees ‘cap’ the honey. This means that a layer of wax is added over the honeycomb, so that the honey may be stored ready for when the bees need it during the winter. To read more about this, see How Do Bees Make Honey?
Beeswax is harvested by beekeepers. Whilst harvesting the honey from the beehive, they remove the layers of wax the honey bees have deposited over the honeycomb cells during the capping process. For this, beekeepers use a special capping knife. The beekeeper will then process the beeswax to remove impurities, and then furnish it into other items, such as balms or candles.
Indeed, beeswax is edible and if you see it in the form of honey comb, then it is certainly meant to be consumed. You may sometimes see honey for sale complete with chunks of wax honeycomb inside the jar. The honeycomb is edible, along with the honey. Read about types of honey.
However, I would not recommend eating other processed products made with beeswax - such as furniture polish!
Interestingly, humans have been using beeswax for a variety for many years, and not merely for candles and furniture polish. You can read about the use of beeswax as a painting medium on my page about 'encaustic art'. It has long been used in beauty products, and today is used in items such as lip balm and hand creams.
Of course, bumble bees also make wax, and they use it for constructing nectar pots, and covering eggs.
With bumble bees, the making of wax starts after the queen has found a suitable place to nest. She must get to work producing the wax that she needs in order to rear her colony. Again, it is secreted from the underside of the abdomen. Cuckoo bumble bees however, do not produce wax, and this is one of the features making them reliant on their chosen host species.
Of course, bumble bees do not construct honeycombs, as they have no need to store nectar for a very long period. This is because unlike honey bee colonies, bumble bee colonies do not survive the winter (apart from some species in very warm climates) – only impregnated queens survive and hibernate, then emerge the following year – see Bumble bee Lifecycle for more information.
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