Wax Glands
Margaret Thomas NDB
Scientific Beekeeping
Chemical Communication in the Honey Bee Society.
The blind scientist Huber (assisted by his wife and man servant) observed how swarms build comb by placing them in a bell jar. They cluster in festoons from the top by the claws of their forelegs, their companions hanging by onto them by their forelegs. They remain motionless for a time. Then wax scales emerge from their wax glands. One worker moved to the top and cleared a space, then pulled the scale from the wax mirrors by the bristles of her hind legs, passed it to the forelegs, and to the mouth. The scale was nibbled and with much tongue moving the fragments were impregnated with a frothy liquid. The wax issued from the mouth as a white ribbon and was applied to the roof of the bell jar. He then found that a ridge of wax was formed on the roof and extended to form the basis of the upper row of cells. With addition by many bees and much sculpturing by their mouthparts the comb was extended.

The antennae are used to determine the position of each piece of wax along with the depth and thickness of the comb. These start as circles which are pushed into the hexagonal shape as the cells touch each other. The only additional tools the bees have to construct the comb are the hair plates at the base of the neck which serve as plumb line to determine gravity. The sense organs on the antennae are able to determine the thickness and smoothness of the cell walls. The diameter and orientation of the cells appear to be dictated by the front legs. This was proved by amputating the antennae of workers, and then removing the tips of the queens legs and she was then not able to differentiate between worker and drone cells and produced a mixture of fertilised and unfertilised eggs, but not in the correct eggs in the correct cells. Amputating workers' front legs results in them failing to do anything!

Honey bee comb hangs vertically, the two sides lying back to back so that the base of one cell forms part of three cells on the opposing side. The hexagonal shape is the most efficient way to make use of the material. Some statistics (from Winston quoting van Frisch and Dadant): European bee worker cells are generally 5.2 – 5.4mm in diameter and drone cells 6.2 – 6.4mm or easier to remember worker cells are 5 to the inch and drone 4 to the inch. These sizes do vary with the different races. The cell walls are approximately 0.073mm thick and the angle between adjacent cell walls is 120◦ and each comb is generally constructed 0.95cm from its neighbour. The bees leave a thicker coping so that the delicate cells are not damaged when bees walk over them. The wax glands are known as exocrine glands –they secrete substances to the outside of the body. The glands will plump up when the bee is actively producing wax and and regress with the age of the bee.

Combs are used to house larvae, honey, and pollen. Further comb is used to cluster on, to deposit pheromones (the queens footprint for one) and it acts as a platform on which to perform dances.

From the beekeepers point of view, bees need warmth and an income of nectar or syrup to produce wax. So it behaves us beekeepers to feed if we expect our bees to produce comb. Swarms should be fed at least a gallon of feed to draw foundation. Producing spare comb for changing comb is best done above the brood nest as heat rises and the process of pupation creates warmth to aid the bees maintaining brood nest temperature. The best comb is produced 'upstairs' in a double brood nest, though the combs could be reduced to 7 or 8 below and the same number above. Use a thick dummy board or frame feeder to form an end wall in each of the brood nests. The brood nest can be reconfigured to one box for wintering or left as a 'chimney'. The extra frames during the build up phase from April to end June serve somewhat to prevent swarming.
wax mirror
wax mirror
intersegmental membrane
ventral diaphragm
fat cells& oenocytes
wax mirror
Sagittal section through lower abdomen of a worker bee.
Ventral view of a worker abdomen showing a pair of wax mirrors.
Books for further reading:
Winston, Biology of the Honey Bee
Ribbands, The Behaviour and Social Life of Honeybees
Originally printed in the Scottish Beekeeper Magazine 2017
Author Margaret Thomas NDB, illustrations edited from Snodgrass originals.