How Bees Make Comb – More Amazing Than You Might Think!

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The axis of honeycomb cells are always quasi-horizontal, and the non-angled rows of honeycomb cells are always horizontally (not vertically) aligned. Thus, each cell has two vertical walls, with “floors” and “ceilings” composed of two angled walls. The cells slope slightly upwards, between 9 and 14 degrees, towards the open ends.

There are two possible explanations for the reason that honeycomb is composed of hexagons, rather than any other shape. One, given by Jan Broztec, is that the hexagon tiles the plane with minimal surface. Thus a hexagonal structure uses the least material to create a lattice of cells within a given volume. Another, given by D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson, is that the shape simply results from the process of individual bees putting cells together: somewhat analogous to the boundary shapes created in a field of soap bubbles. In support of this he notes that queen cells, which are constructed singly, are irregular and lumpy with no apparent attempt at efficiency.

The closed ends of the honeycomb cells are also an example of geometric efficiency, albeit three-dimensional and little-noticed. The ends are trihedral (i.e., composed of three planes) sections of rhombic dodecahedra, with the dihedral angles of all adjacent surfaces measuring 120°, the angle that minimizes surface area for a given volume. (The angle formed by the edges at the pyramidal apex is approximately 109° 28′ 16″ (= 180° – arccos(1/3)).)

A computer-generated model of a honeycomb cell, showing a hexagonal tube terminating in three equal rhombuses that meet at a point on the axis of the cell
The three-dimensional geometry of a honeycomb cell.

The shape of the cells is such that two opposing honeycomb layers nest into each other, with each facet of the closed ends being shared by opposing cells.

A computer-generated model of two opposing honeycomb layers, showing three cells on one layer fitting together with three cells on the opposing layer
Opposing layers of honeycomb cells fit together.

Individual cells do not, of course, show this geometric perfection: in a regular comb, there are deviations of a few percent from the “perfect” hexagonal shape. In transition zones between the larger cells of drone comb and the smaller cells of worker comb, or when the bees encounter obstacles, the shapes are often distorted. Cells are also angled up about 13° from horizontal to prevent honey from dripping out.

In 1965, László Fejes Tóth discovered that the trihedral pyramidal shape (which is composed of three rhombi) used by the honeybee is not the theoretically optimal three-dimensional geometry. A cell end composed of two hexagons and two smaller rhombuses would actually be .035% (or approximately 1 part per 2850) more efficient. This difference is too minute to measure on an actual honeycomb, and irrelevant to the hive economy in terms of efficient use of wax, considering that wild comb varies considerably from any mathematical notion of “ideal” geometry.


Here’s Where The Bees Build Their Comb

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Plastic Frame And Foundation

Wax Foundation And Wooden Frame

Below are pictures of the type of frame and foundation I used in the second deep hive body.  I’m using a mix of beeswax sheets, plastic frame and foundation and plastic frame and foundation with larger cell pattern, which encourage the queen to lay drone (male bee) eggs.  This is done, as mites lay their eggs in drone cells and this way, the drone comb can be removed before they emerge and the mite eggs hatch.  The drone comb is bright green, so easy to spot when opening the hive.  Beeswax is a nice yellow natural color and I’m using black plastic frames for the others.  I could use black or white as the bees don’t really care.  The plastic is coated with beeswax to make it more attractive to the bees.  Plastic frame/foundation is real easy to use, is strong and durable and wax moths can’t eat it.

Plastic Drone Comb

Room Addition

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Colony A on May 27,2011

This morning we had thunderstorms, but later in the afternoon, there was sun and the foraging bees were working hard.  I decided this was a good time to make a first inspection on Colony A.  I opened the hive and the bees were so gentle!  Not a single aggressive guard bee, after a bit of sugar syrup spray with essential oil.  There are 10 frames in a hive body and the bees were working very hard to build comb on 7 frames.  So, I decided they were strong enough to add a second story to their home.  I added a hive body with 10 empty frame, so they have twice the space and can build more new comb.  I also put a Small Hive Beetle trap on the new deep, as Small Hive Beetles cause a lot of problems for bees, by eating their wax.  The beetle trap is a little plastic device that holds corn oil.  The beetles are attracted to the corn oil, fall in and are trapped.  I can check in a week or so.  Here’s a picture of Colony A with the new addition.

Lots Of Pollen!

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With the sun out and the rain ending, the little foragers are returning to the hive with their pollen baskets full!  Some of them are so laden with pollen that they can barely land.  Beautiful golden pollen, the protein of the bee’s diet and necessary for raising brood and keeping the colony healthy!  A very good sign!!

Bees And Weather

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We’ve had extreme weather for a few days now, giving the bees little time to gather pollen and nectar.  Heavy rain, high winds and tornado threat after tornado threat have kept the colony inside their hive.  We had 16.5 inches of rainfall within 24 hours.  That’s the most I’ve ever seen.  Also, a couple of nights of severe tornado weather.  On Sunday night, a big tornado traveled north of us, striking Joplin, MO, just 17 miles east of us.  Needless to say, along with all other concerns, I was concerned for the well-being of my little friends in their newly established home in the backyard.  They are protected from weather on three sides, which was part of my planning.  With each break in the weather and a bit of sunshine peeking through the clouds, they have been busily foraging whatever food sources they can find.

The Sweet Aroma Of Beeswax

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The project for today is melting down and filtering the old beeswax comb I removed with the bees I rescued last week from the old house wall.  The first step is to put water in an old pot and get it to boil.  Then, add the old comb and let it reach the boiling point (NEVER do that over a direct flame without water in the pot!).  Once the comb has melted and boiling, I’m removing dead bees and larvae with a piece of fine mesh screen.  Now, it’s a matter of letting the beeswax cool, which allows the cleanest wax to float to the top.  I can remove the cleanest wax, add more comb and go through the process again.  Once I have moderately clean wax, I can heat it once more and filter it through nylon, removing the smaller debris.  I’ll have some nice small cakes of pure, sweet smelling beeswax.  It’s handy for lots of things around the house, including the making of cosmetics and lip balm!

Things You Should Know About Honeybees

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  1. Worker honey bees are all females. Males do not know how to even feed themselves and their only reason for being in the hive is for reproducing with the queen. The males do not have a stinger and they are kicked out of the hive in the fall, because there are no uses for them.
  2. Honey bees are very clean and I think they have slight OCD. They want their hive (which they made themselves, hexagon by hexagon) to be immaculately clean. If something dirties their hive, they will immediately get the offense out. The only honey bee in the hive that uses the bathroom inside the hive is the queen. She never leaves the hive, so her faithful workers get her mess right out. Bees will also make sure that when their time comes, they will die outside of the hive.
  3. There is only one queen per hive. The queen lives 2-3 years as opposed to the 6-8 weeks like the workers. The queen is made, rather than born. Worker bees will feed larvae royal jelly for a certain period of time. The royal jelly is secreted through the heads of the worker bees and is fed through their antennas to the larvae. The royal jelly has so many vitamins and nutrients it will allow for the larvae to become queens. Since there can only be one queen per hive, the potential queen bees will fight to the death until there is one queen remaining.
  4. Honey bees, like their name implies, are the only insects to make honey.  Honey bees though make honey in surplus so bee keepers are able to take a certain amount without hurting the bees or depriving them of food.
  5. Honey bees never sleep! No wonder worker bees have such a short lifespan!
  6. Honey bees are the only insects that produce something that humans eat. It is also the only food that never goes bad! Its sugar content is too high. Edible honey was found in King Tut’s tomb!
  7. The honey bee colonies each have a distinct odor which allows for them to identify the members. Often times bee keepers will need to assimilate colonies. A way to do that would be to place bees from each colony into a paper bag together. The paper bag should have a divider so each colony stays in its own side. Being in the container together the smells will mix and they will not be able to recognize the other bees as enemies due to their familiar odor.
  8. The Queen bee lays around 2,000 eggs per day! She can also select the gender of the larvae. Most larvae that will be produced will be female.
  9. The Average honey bee will produce 1/12 of a teaspoon of honey in its lifetime. To make one pound of honey it would take 556 workers and 2 million flowers. 50-100 flowers are pollinated during one collection trip. About one ounce of honey is all it takes to give the honey bee enough energy to fly around the world (although the farthest they usually fly away from their hive is six miles).
  10. Bees are responsible for 80% of pollination that occurs. So next time you’re eating any fruit or vegetable, thank a honey bee!

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