When honey bees are building new comb, they create a scaffolding type of structure with one another. They hold on to the legs of their fellow hive sisters and create an intricate form called festooning.
Not all honey bee castes perform this task, drones and queens do not; only house bees about the age of 12 – 18 days. These house bees start to mature their wax glands, and these are the same honey bees that are directly involved in building the comb. Their glands are located beneath the ventral segments (on the side of their abdomen).
These young house bees produce liquid wax from the sides of their abdomen, and when the liquid hits the air, it solidifies into wax scales. These wax scales are gathered and used to build comb. When the wax is needed, they move the wax scales from their abdomen using their hairs and legs to their mandibles (or jaws). In this solidified form, its not much use, so the bees will have to warm it to a temperature above 109F in order to get it malleable enough to use for building.
Imagine being a bricklayer, and you create clay from the side of your stomach, incredible.
During this process, they start constructing their hexagon cell homes, which are incredibly complex since they measure the size of each cell needed and understand the needs of the colony as they are building the cells. They build from top to bottom and maximize the space they are in for their environment. They don’t need to go back and redo it, as they are building many times the queen will start laying, and food will begin to be collected (depending on the purpose of the comb being built, which the hive as a whole understands intuitively).
They instinctually have these mathematical numbers in their brains. Combs will be 3/8 an inch apart; anything less than 3/8 inch the bees propolis and anything over 3/8 inch they create comb or burr comb (build wax for future storage or bracing). The wax cells are also arched slightly upward at 9 to 13 degrees. This helps keep all their food and larvae from falling out.
This process is still not fully understood, but when comb starts being built, which seems to be due to the needs of the colony and pheromones being produced. The surrounding honey bees that are key to comb building will join together, almost at once, leaving their current job behind to start construction. As wax glands need recharging, they may leave their post (perhaps being replaced by another bee to keep the scaffolding in shape) and tend to the brood or previous tasks and then come back.
In nature, when the bees are allowed to create their own home, the cells range in various sizes according to the needs of the colony. When honey bees are given plastic or wax foundation as a template, all the cells are the same size and they tend to be slightly larger than when built-in nature. It tends to be more healthy for the bees to build their own combs vs. providing them a prestamped foundation.
The amount of energy it takes to build these structures is immense. It takes approximately 7 pounds of honey reserve to create 1 pound of wax. Considering that it takes about 2 million visits to a flower or approximately 55,000 miles of flying for foragers to bring back 1 pound of nectar- not including the intricate way that nectar is converted into honey, it’s absolutely incredible that they are able to build these comb when they need them and how they need them.
- The Beekeepers Handbook 5th Edition: Page 32-34
- Honey Bee Biology: Page 78-82