Young worker honeybees make wax. It is secreted as a liquid from four pairs of wax glands on the ventral surface of the abdominal tergites (plates on the underside of a bee’s body). The liquid wax will spread over the surface of these plates and harden when it gets in contact with air to form a single wax scale on each tergite. This appears like a small flake of wax on the underside of the bee.
Worker honeybees produce eight scales of wax every 12 hours. The size of the wax glands depends upon the age of the worker: they are largest when the bee is about 12 days old and decline steadily after the eighteenth day until the end of her life. One million wax scales make one kilogram of wax.
Bees use the stiff hairs on their hind legs to remove the scales of wax and pass them on to the middle legs, and then to the mandibles (jaws) where wax is chewed and salivary secretions become mixed with the wax. When it is the right consistency, the new wax is used for comb construction or to seal honey cells. Bees are stimulated to produce wax when there is a surplus of honey to be stored and a lack of honeycomb in which to store it.
Bees consume eight kilograms of honey to produce one kilogram of wax. When a swarm of bees settles to establish a new nest, they start building beeswax combs. Bees need high temperatures to be able to produce beeswax and build with it. The production of the first comb takes place inside the congregation of bees, where the temperature is highest. The bees building a comb join together to make ‘garlands’ or ‘festoons’ – chains of bees. Hanging like this they secrete the wax.
When the beeswax is ready on a bee, she will move up the chain to the place where the building is going on. It will fetch one of the wax scales using her hind legs and bring it to her mouth to chew and mix with secretions, before using it for building. This is repeated until all eight wax scales are used. During the comb construction, bees knock it with their upper jaws to make it vibrate. This will help bees judge comb thickness and guide them to know if some wax has to be gnawed off, or if more has to be added.