Comb Honey Corner

January 2015

by Ray Nabors

Comb honey production, like all honey production, relies on beeswax production. The difference between comb honey production and extracted honey production is that new wax must be produced every season when comb honey is the objective.

Wax production is expensive for any colony of bees. Weak colonies cannot produce comb honey efficiently. Keeping colonies strong is necessary. Fall feeding is important. If a colony is too weak to split in the spring, then that colony is not a good candidate for comb honey production. They cannot produce enough wax for themselves and for new storage.

In honey bees the anterior, ventral sterna of abdominal segments 4, 5, 6, and 7 are concealed by overlapping adjacent anterior sterna. Beneath the overlap are two large, oval, polished surfaces referred to as wax mirrors. These two mirrors are side by side, one right the other left. They are not exposed, but covered by those adjacent abdominal segments on the underside of every worker bee abdomen. Over each wax mirror segment is a pair of wax glands with associated fat cells and oenocytes which are insect cells believed to be associated with secretions, including the waxy cuticle of all insects.

The little wax plates made by bees are spread onto the wax mirrors and removed with the basitarsus of the hind leg, then handed to the front legs or mandibles. Combs are made from these wax plates secreted by the worker bees and used for honey and pollen storage, as well as the nursery. Bees will only build comb inside a nest site that is of proper size between 20 – 100 liters. The average size is 40 liters, which is about the volume of a standard Lanstroth deep hive body.

The combs consist of back to back hexagonal cells such that each cell shares a wall with six other cells and a bottom with three other cells. Wax is secreted as oval scales which project between the segments on the ventral portion of the abdomen. Honey bee wax glands enlarge from 5 to 15 days after the bee emerges from its pupa cell.

A wax-producing bee requires extra feeding for the making of wax. Bees 12 to 18 days old produce most of the wax. Bees consume 4,000 grams of honey to produce 500 grams of wax. Bee bread is important in the production of wax to build comb. Workers producing wax engorge themselves with large quantities of honey. In comb honey production, wax building limits honey production.

More than a hundred bees may contribute to the construction of a single cell. The “bee space” discovered by Lorenzo Loraine Langstroth is 3/8th of an inch between combs. Bee space allows room for the bees to work and travel without wasting space. Honey is stored above the nursery which is why supers are placed on top of the brood nest.

Surplus honey will be reduced where comb honey is the product. It takes 9 pounds of honey to produce a pound of wax. It will take only 55 grams of wax to store a kilogram of honey. A standard deep brood chamber frame will have over 7,000 cells. The wax cells weigh 100 grams yet hold more than 2 quarts (liters) of honey. It takes 1,000,000 wax scales to produce 2.4 pounds (Kilogram) of wax. A brood nest requires 9,100,000 wax scales. A comb honey frame could require a half million scales.

The comb honey producer has more than ...