Wax is a natural secretion of the bees; it may be called _their oil or
fat_. If they are gorged with honey, or any liquid sweet, and remain
quietly clustered together, it is formed in small wax pouches on their
abdomen, and comes out in the shape of very delicate scales. Soon after
a swarm is hived, the bottom board will be covered with these scales.
"Thus, filtered through yon flutterer's folded mail,
Clings the cooled wax, and hardens to a scale.
Swift, at the well known call, the ready train,
(For not a buz boon Nature breathes in vain,)
Spring to each falling flake, and bear along
Their glossy burdens to the builder throng.
These with sharp sickle or with sharper tooth,
Pare each excrescence, and each angle smooth,
Till now, in finish'd pride, two radiant rows
Of snow white cells one mutual base disclose.
Six shining panels gird each polish'd round,
The door's fine rim, with waxen fillet bound,
While walls so thin, with sister walls combined,
Weak in themselves, a sure dependence find."
Huber was the first to demonstrate that wax is a natural secretion of
the bee, when fed on honey or any saccharine substance. Most Apiarians
before his time, supposed that it was made from pollen or bee-bread,
either in a crude or digested state. He confined a new swarm of bees in
a hive placed in a dark and cool room, and on examining them, at the
end of five days, found several beautiful white combs in their
tenement: these were taken from them, and they were again confined and
supplied with honey and water, and a second time new combs were
constructed. Five times in succession their combs were removed, and were
in each instance replaced, the bees being all the time prevented from
ranging the fields, to supply themselves with bee-bread. By subsequent
experiments he proved that sugar answered the same end with honey.
He then confined a swarm, giving them no honey, but an abundance of
fruit and pollen. They subsisted on the fruit, but refused to touch the
pollen; and no combs were constructed, nor any wax scales formed in
their pouches. These experiments are conclusive; and are interesting,
not merely as proving that wax is secreted from honey or saccharine
substances, but because they show in what a thorough manner the
experiments of Huber were conducted. Confident assertions are easily
made, requiring only a little breath or a drop of ink; and the men who
deal most in them, have often a profound contempt for observation and
experiment. To establish even a simple truth, on the solid foundation of
demonstrated facts, often requires the most patient and protracted toil.
_A high temperature_ is necessary for comb-building, in order that the
wax may be soft enough to be moulded into shape. The very process of its
secretion helps to furnish the amount of heat which is required to work
it. This is a very interesting fact which seems never before to have
Honey or sugar is found to contain by weight, about eight pounds of
oxygen to one of carbon and hydrogen. When changed into wax, the
proportions are entirely reversed: the wax contains only one pound of
oxygen to more than sixteen pounds of hydrogen and carbon. Now as
oxygen is the grand supporter of animal heat, the consumption of so
large a quantity of it, aids in producing the extraordinary heat which
always accompanies comb-building, and which is necessary to keep the wax
in the soft and plastic state requisite to enable the bees to mould it
into such exquisitely delicate and beautiful shapes! Who can fail to
admire the wisdom of the Creator in this beautiful instance of
The most careful experiments have clearly established the fact, that at
least _twenty pounds_ of honey are consumed in making a single pound of
wax. If any think that this is incredible, let them bear in mind that
wax is an animal oil secreted from honey, and let them consider how many
pounds of corn or hay they must feed to their stock, in order to have
them gain a single pound of fat.
Many Apiarians are entirely ignorant of the great value of empty comb.
Suppose the honey to be worth only 15 cts. per lb., and the comb when
rendered into wax, to be worth 30 cts. per lb., the bee-master who melts
a pound of comb, loses nearly three dollars by the operation, and this,
without estimating the time which the bees have consumed in building the
comb. Unfortunately, in the ordinary hives, but little use can be made
of empty comb, unless it is new, and can be put into the surplus
honey-boxes: but by the use of my movable frames, every piece of good
worker-comb may be used to the best advantage, as it can be given to the
bees, to aid them in their labors.
It has been found very difficult to preserve comb from the bee-moth,
when it is taken from the bees. If it contains only a _few_ of the eggs
of this destroyer, these, in due time, will produce a progeny sufficient
to devour it. The comb, if it is attached to my frames, may be suspended
in a box or empty hive, and thoroughly smoked with sulphur; this will
kill any _worms_ which it may contain. When the weather is warm enough
to hatch the eggs of the moth, this process must be repeated a few
times, at intervals of about a week, so as to insure the destruction of
the worms as they hatch, for the sulphur does not seem always to destroy
the vitality of the eggs. The combs may now be kept in a tight box or
hive, with perfect safety.
Combs containing bee-bread, are of great value, and if given to young
colonies, which in spring are frequently destitute of this article, they
will materially assist them in early breeding.
Honey may be taken from my hives in the frames, and the covers of the
cells sliced off with a sharp knife; the honey can then be drained out,
and the empty combs returned to be filled again. A strong stock of bees,
in the height of the honey harvest, will fill empty combs with wonderful
rapidity. I lay it down, as one of my _first principles_ in bee culture,
that no good comb should ever be melted; it should all be carefully
preserved and given to the bees. If it is new, it may be easily attached
to the frames, or the honey-receptacles, by dipping the edge into melted
wax, pressing it gently until it stiffens, and then allowing it to cool.
If the comb is old, or the pieces large and full of bee-bread, it will
be best to dip them into melted rosin, which, besides costing much less
than wax, will secure a much firmer adhesion. When comb is put into
tumblers or other small vessels, the bees will begin to work upon it the
sooner, if it is simply crowded in, so as to be held in place by being
supported against the sides. It would seem as though they were disgusted
with such unworkmanlike proceedings, and that they cannot rest until
they have taken it into hand, and endeavored to "make a job of it."
If the bee-keeper in using his choicest honey will be satisfied to
dispense with looks, and will carefully drain it from the beautiful
comb, he may use all such comb again to great advantage; not only saving
its intrinsic value, but greatly encouraging his bees to occupy and fill
all receptacles in which a portion of it is put. Bees seem to fancy _a
good start in life_, about as well as their more intelligent owners. To
this use all suitable drone comb should be put, as soon as it is removed
from the main hive. (See remarks on Drones.)
Ingenious efforts have been made, of late years, to construct
_artificial_ honey combs of porcelain, to be used for _feeding_ bees. No
one, to my knowledge, has ever attempted to imitate the delicate
mechanism of the bee so closely, as to construct artificial combs for
the ordinary uses of the hive; although for a long time I have
entertained the idea as very desirable, and yet as barely possible. I am
at present engaged in a course of experiments on this subject, the
results of which, in due time, I shall communicate to the public.
While writing this treatise, it has occurred to me that bees might be
induced to use old wax for the construction of their combs. Very fine
parings may be shaved off with glass, and if given to the bees, under
favorable circumstances, it seems to me very probable that they would
use them, just as they do the scales which are formed in their wax
pouches. Let strong colonies be deprived of some of their combs, after
the honey harvest is over, and supplied abundantly with these parings of
wax. Whether "nature abhors a vacuum," or not, bees certainly do, when
it occurs among the combs of their main hive. They will not use the
honey stored up for winter use to replace the combs taken from them;
they can gather none from the flowers; and I have strong hopes that
necessity will with bees as well as men, prove the mother of invention,
and lead them to use the wax, as readily as they do the substitutes
offered them for pollen. (See Chapter on Pollen.)
If this conjecture should be verified by actual results, it would exert
a most powerful influence in the cheap and rapid multiplication of
colonies, and would enable the bees to store up most prodigious
quantities of honey. A pound of bees wax might then be made to store up
twenty pounds of honey, and the gain to the bee keeper would be the
difference in price between the pound of wax, and the twenty pounds of
honey, which the bees would have consumed in making the same amount of
comb. Strong stocks might thus during the dull season, when no honey can
be procured, be most profitably employed in building spare comb, to be
used in strengthening feeble stocks, and for a great variety of
purposes. Give me the means of cheaply obtaining large amounts of comb,
and I have almost found the philosopher's stone in bee keeping.
The building of comb is carried on with the greatest activity in the
night, while the honey is gathered by day. Thus no time is lost. If the
weather is too forbidding to allow the bees to go abroad, the combs are
very rapidly constructed, as the labor is carried on both by day and by
night. On the return of a fair day, the bees gather unusual quantities
of honey, as they have plenty of room for its storage. Thus it often
happens, that by their wise economy of time, they actually lose nothing,
even if confined, for several days, to their hive.
"How doth the little busy bee, improve each _shining_ hour!"
The poet might with equal truth have described her, as improving the
gloomy days, and the dark nights, in her useful labors.
It is an interesting fact, which I do not remember ever to have seen
particularly noticed by any writer, that honey gathering, and comb
building, go on simultaneously; so that when one stops, the other ceases
also. I have repeatedly observed, that as soon as the honey harvest
fails, the bees intermit their labors in building new comb, even when
large portions of their hive are unfilled. They might enlarge their
combs by using some of their stores; but then they would incur the risk
of perishing in the winter, by starvation. When honey no longer abounds
in the fields, it is wisely ordered, that they should not consume their
hoarded treasures, in expectation of further supplies, which may never
come. I do not believe, that any other safe rule could have been given
them; and if honey gathering was our business, with all our boasted
reason, we should be obliged to adopt the very same course.
Wax is one of the best non-conductors of heat, so that when it is warmed
by the animal heat of the bees, it can more easily be worked, than if it
parted with its heat too readily. By this property, the combs serve also
to keep the bees warm, and there is not so much risk of the honey
candying in the cells, or the combs cracking with frost. If wax was a
good conductor of heat, the combs would often be icy cold, moisture
would condense and freeze upon them, and they would fail to answer the
ends for which they are intended.
The size of the cells, in which workers are reared, never varies: the
same may substantially be said of the drone cells which are very
considerably larger; the cells in which honey is stored, often vary
exceedingly in depth, while in diameter, they are of all sizes from that
of the worker cells to that of the drones.
The cells of the bees are found perfectly to answer all the most refined
conditions of a very intricate mathematical problem! Let it be required
to find what shape a given quantity of matter must take, in order to
have _the greatest capacity, and the greatest strength_, requiring at
the same time, _the least space, and the least labor_ in its
construction. This problem has been solved by the most refined processes
of the higher mathematics, and the result is the hexagonal or six-sided
cell of the honey bee, with its three four-sided figures at the base!
The shape of these figures cannot be altered, _ever so little, except
for the worse_. Besides possessing the desirable qualities already
described, they answer as _nurseries_ for the rearing of the young, and
as _small air-tight vessels_ in which the honey is preserved from
souring or candying. Every prudent housewife who puts up her preserves
in tumblers, or small glass jars, and carefully pastes them over, to
keep out the air, will understand the value of such an arrangement.
"There are only three possible figures of the cells," says Dr. Reid,
"which can make them all equal and similar, without any useless spaces
between them. These are the equilateral triangle, the square and the
regular hexagon. It is well known to mathematicians that there is not a
fourth way possible, in which a plane may be cut into little spaces that
shall be equal, similar and regular, without leaving any interstices."
An equilateral triangle would have made an uncomfortable tenement for an
insect with a round body; and a square would not have been much better.
At first sight a circle would seem to be the best shape for the
development of the larvae: but such a figure would have caused a needless
sacrifice of space, materials and strength; while the honey which now
adheres so admirably to the many angles or corners of the six-sided
cell, would have been much more liable to run out! I will venture to
assign a new reason for the hexagonal form. The body of the immature
insect as it undergoes its changes, is charged with a super-abundance of
moisture which passes off through the reticulated cover which the bees
build over its cell: a hexagon while it approaches so nearly the shape
of a circle as not to incommode the young bee, furnishes in its six
corners the necessary vacancies for its more thorough ventilation!
So invariably uniform in size, as well as perfect in other respects, are
the cells in which the workers are bred, that some mathematicians have
proposed their adoption, as the best unit for measures of capacity to
serve for universal use.
Can we believe that these little insects unite so many requisites in the
construction of their cells, either by chance, or because they are
profoundly versed in the most intricate mathematics? Are we not
compelled to acknowledge that the mathematics must be referred to the
Creator, and not to His puny creature? To an intelligent, candid mind, a
piece of honey comb is a complete demonstration that there is a "GREAT
FIRST CAUSE:" for on no other supposition can we account for so
complicated a shape, and yet the only one which can possibly unite so
many desirable requisites.
"On books deep poring, ye pale sons of toil,
Who waste in studious trance the midnight oil,
Say, can ye emulate with all your rules,
Drawn or from Grecian or from Gothic schools,
This artless frame? Instinct her simple guide,
A heaven-taught Insect baffles all your pride.
Not all yon marshall'd orbs, that ride so high,
Proclaim more loud a present Deity,
Than the nice symmetry of these small cells,
Where on each angle genuine science dwells."