How do bees make a honey comb?

Updated November 21, 2016

Beehives have been kept since ancient times. Bees are social insects with a host of abilities: They produce royal jelly, wax, "bee bread," sticky traps made from propolis to halt invasions and, of course, honey. Beekeeping and honey-gathering have been known to humans for thousands of years. How bees create their honey combs is a fascinating study.


Honey combs are essentially storage compartments comprised of many hexagonal cells. These cells have two primary uses. They are used to incubate bee eggs, and thereby replenish the colony as the eggs hatch and grow into larval and adult forms. They are also used to store food, such as pollen (for protein to feed the young) and honey (for the entire colony to eat.) The honey combs are the main infrastructure of the hive, protected by the hive's exterior from the elements and enemies.


Honey combs are built of beeswax. Bees between 12 and 15 days old secrete this from wax glands as a byproduct of honey consumption; the sugars in the honey are processed into wax, which the bees use as the raw material in honeycomb construction. Bees shape the wax with their mandibles and legs. Note that wasps, which have no wax glands, follow a similar process of comb construction. Rather than seeking nectar and pollen, wasps scrape wood pulp from wherever they can find it to build combs. Wasps--which do not produce honey--use combs solely for storing eggs.

Why Hexagons?

It is unknown why bees always utilise the distinctive hexagon shape of honey comb cells. One explanation is the hexagon is an accidental but inevitable result of cramming so many cells together. The honey comb cells are equally pressed together from all sides. This phenomenon occurs with bubbles as well, initially round in shape until they are pressed into flat sides. A second explanation is that a hexagon is deliberately chosen because the shape itself makes optimal use of limited material and surface area, more than a circle or square, for instance.


A hive can contain hundreds or thousands of bees, and the honey comb is a precise, orderly, mathematically efficient structure for the colony's supplies. Once the honey is produced or the pollen collected, it is placed in one of the comb's cells and sealed with a wax barrier. This provides an additional level of protection. For cells containing eggs (called the brood comb), the larvae remain in the cells until they are old enough to leave. They are fed by other bees until they are old enough to forage on their own.


Beekeepers raise bees to collect honey, wax and even royal jelly. When these materials are plentiful enough, the beekeepers often remove the entire honey comb in the process. Modern techniques, such as movable beekeeping frames, allow for honey combs to be reinserted into the hive when the honey is extracted, as opposed to older practices that often resulted in the destruction of the colony.

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