Waxing Lyrical

Spot the Wax !
Spot the Wax !

As a beekeeper, you get used to answering questions about your hobby. Here are a few old favourites: “Do you get stung?” (Yes. In 2012). “Can I buy some honey?” (Very possibly). “I’m allergic to bee-stings, but I want to help the planet, should I have a go?” (No). “How much does all the hives and stuff cost?” (Don’t ask, and if you ever find out, certainly don’t tell any of my nearest and dearest). “Aren’t they all dying, or something?” (Well, how long have you got….?)

The one question which I never get asked is about all that wax. I’m surprised, since wax is the stuff which is central to this whole honeybee thing. Without it – no bee metropolis. So I thought that I would ask my beekeeper avatar that question here on the Apis blog, because it’ll never be a pub quiz question and it certainly doesn’t make the top five questions above. And the answer which I got back from my amanuensis was: “Wax is the building material for comb, which provides a home structure, a brood nest and a honey store for bees“. Not quite good enough: “Ah-ha“, I challenged, probing boldly beyond the bleeding obvious: “I get all that, but where does it actually come from?”

Well, you can’t get wax on the High Street during the summer sales, just try (note: please resist the temptation to pop into your local “Prêt à Cirer” parlour and ask about wax, unless you like the sound of the word “pampering” a lot and have a slightly masochistic tendency). There’s just no wax to be had out there at retail. It simply isn’t an SKU item. So where do the bees get it from ?

Perhaps we are not looking in the right place, in our consumerist, pre-packaged, retail externalisation of reality. We must get in touch with our inner wax, explore the grand design of our own being. Consider: the production of wax is not limited to bees in the animal kingdom. We do it, too. Ours comes, typically, from our ears, or rather from glands in the auditory canal between our ears and our brain. It’s just that we don’t tend to grab that wax with alacrity, chew it hard (I am, of course, excluding young human males of the “Just William” variety from this commentary) and then build our houses out of it. But bees do exactly that!

So now let’s take a look at where wax comes from in bees. First you need plenty of honey. It takes around 10 pounds of honey to make a single pound of beeswax. In the hive, well-fed young bees cluster and raise their body temperatures. Then, from wax-producing glands under their abdomens, the young workers slowly secrete glass-clear slivers of wax about the size of a small sea-salt crystal (yet consisting of some 284 different compounds!). Other worker bees harvest these wax scales and take them to the part of the hive requiring the new wax, where this wax, now white after being chewed by the builder-bees, is used to form perfect hexagonal cell panels. Interestingly, bees often form a continuous string of linked bees while constructing wax comb. So far, biologists have failed to discover why this “paper-chain-conga” of bees is important to the process (although my avatar’s guess is that this assists in raising the temperature locally, making the wax easier to work into comb).

It really is worth drilling a little further down to consider the crucial role of wax in the beehive. Wax forms not only the infrastructure, but arguably, the central nervous system of the “superorganism” which is every honeybee colony. That’s how Juergen Tautz characterises wax comb in his book “The Buzz about Bees – Biology of a Superorganism“. Here the term “superorganism” is employed to designate each bee colony as a social and behavioural entity which is greater than the sum of its individual parts. As such, JT characterises the comb which the bees build from wax as “the largest organ of the bee colony”. As a scientist, Herr Tautz’s default setting is to deploy anatomical prose, rather than to wax lyrical, I suppose.

My avatar chimed in: “I’d say that your Juergen’s more Mahler than Mozart.  Sure, he has the benefit of an ordered, Germanic analysis of the role of wax in this slightly-worryingly-titled “superorganism“. But if you ask me,  a beekeeper’s humble avatar, this wax business is all a bit of a song and dance for the bees. By the way, how long have you got…?” He always likes to have the last word.

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