Inside the Hive
Home Sweet Home
Every hive has a distinctive odor from the pheromones of its queen and from the Nassanoff scent gland located at the end of the worker bee abdomens. Workers stand at the entrance of the hive and fan their wings to spread the scent. Honeybees with their acute sense of smell, use the odor to find their hive when they fly in from the field.
Regulation of temperature and humidity in the hive, and ventilation of the hive are very important to the health of the hive. Humidity of the hive, which gives honey its protective quality, must be kept within a certain limit. If humidity is over or under a normal limit, then the honey will spoil and lose its protective and nutritious qualities. In addition to humidity control, during the brood raising season, temperature in the hive has to be kept at 94° regardless of the outside temperature. Bees raise the temperature within the hive by vibrating their flight muscles to generate heat. They lower it by fanning their wings. On hot days bees can be seen clinging in a ball outside the hive. This is known as bearding. Using a screened bottom board, along with other openings, help with ventilation in the summer, reducing bearding.
The effort of the bees to preserve the quality of the honey is not limited to humidity and heat regulation. A health system within the hive also keeps under control all events that may result in the origination of bacteria and disease. Guards at the door keep out foreign bees and other insects. Diseased larvae and pupae are removed. Bees that have died in the hive are also removed. Objects too large for the bees to remove, such as mice, are covered in propolis.
Propolis (bee glue) is a substance produced by bees mixing wax with plant resins. In warm weather it is has the consistency of tar, sticks to everything, and is next to impossible to remove from clothing. When it is cold, propolis is hard and brittle. Propolis is anti-bacterial, it kills bacteria. Bees use it to seal cracks or gaps where micro-organisms could flourish. They coat everything they can with it. Sealing the gaps with propolis also makes the hive waterproof and draftproof. The result is a dry, cozy, hygenic hive.
The hive is made up of beeswax-walled honeycombs, which have hundreds of tiny cells on each of its faces. Aside from drone cells and queen cells, all comb cells are exactly at the same size. This engineering feat is achieved by the collective functioning of thousands of bees. Bees use these cells for food storage and for rearing their young. Bees only build new comb when they are collecting nectar and the available comb is filled beyond a threshold level with brood and food.
A typical hive contains around 100,000 cells which takes about 2.6 lbs. of wax to construct. When comb is first constructed it is pliable and near-white in color. Comb used for food storage takes on a yellowish hue over time due to the accumulation of pollen. As comb used for brood rearing ages it becomes darker, almost black, and more brittle because of accumulated fecal material, propolis, and pollen. In the wild, as a colony grows and continues to add new comb, brood rearing gradually shifts into the new comb, with honey and pollen being stored in the old brood comb.
Beeswax is only produced by honey bees. The 10-16 day-old hive bees are especially efficient at wax production. After gorging on honey or nectar, liquid wax is secreted from glands, emerges between the segments under their abdomen, and quickly hardens into small flakes. Bees collect the flakes with the little hooks on their legs. It is made pliable by chewing and applied to the combs being constructed or repaired. Bees generally need to consume between 6-8 pounds of honey to make one pound of wax.
By shaping small wax scales, honey bees construct a hive where thousands of bees can live and work together. The bees cluster in large numbers, maintaining a hive temperature of 94°, which keeps the wax firm but workable during cell construction.
The honey comb has hexagon (six sided) cells on both sides of a vertical central wall. It actually consists of two layers of cells placed back to back. Such a cell is a prism whose section is approximately a regular hexagon, while the ends are three-faced 'steeples'. The walls of each honey cell are fashioned from the wax and are manufactured to a high tolerance (within 0.2% of their 1/1000 thickness) and support 25 times their weight. These cells are inclined upward 13° from horizontal to retain liquid nectar and honey. All the cell walls stand at 120º to each other, forming a perfect lattice. All-natural comb cells are 1 inch deep and 4.9 mm wide.
The construction of honeycomb is started from the upper side of the hive and continued simultaneously in two or three separate rows downward. For such a construction, bees need to calculate the distances between the starting and connection points in advance. This constructing the comb from different corners and then combining their separate works without leaving any gaps and having all the cells constructed equally in the perfect hexagonal structure is amazing. Considering the calculations needed and made by the bees, along with the cells being six sided, it begs the question, does the fact that bees have six legs have anything to do with the measurements?
Maximum Storage, Minimum Space
Biologists have long contended that the honeycomb was the ideal structure for containing the maximum amount of honey while containing the minimum amount of wax, however mathematical proof of this so-called “honeycomb conjecture” was a long time in coming. The conjecture, which has been a subject of mathematical curiosity since the third century AD, wasn't finally proved until June 1999, when Thomas C. Hales of the University of Michigan, finally demonstrated conclusively that “a hexagonal grid represents the best way to divide a surface into regions of equal area with the least total perimeter”.
Bees have been using the hexagonal structure for the construction of the honeycombs for since there have been bees. Why hexagonal? The answer is given by the mathematicians, "hexagonal structure is the most suitable geometric form for maximum use of unit area" If the honeycomb cells were constructed in another form, then there would be areas left out of use; thus less honey would be stored, and less bees would be able to benefit from it.
As long as their depths are the same, a triangle or quadrangle cell will hold the same amount of honey as a hexagonal cell. But, among all these geometric forms, hexagon is the one with the shortest circumference. While they have the same volume, amount of wax required for hexagonal cells is less than that required for a triangular or quadrangular one.
Combs are built as a slice with two lines lying back to back, where the connection point problem occurs. This problem is solved by constructing the bottom surfaces of cells by combining three equilateral quadrangles. When three cells are built on one face of the comb, the bottom surface of one cell on the other face is automatically constructed.
The hexagonal design of the cells is practical in many aspects. Cells fit to each other and they share each other's walls. This, again, ensures maximum storage with minimum wax. Besides the side walls, the same principle of maximum saving is realized in the way the bottom of the cells are constructed. As the bottom surface is composed of equilateral quadrangle wax plaques, the depth increases in these cells, which results in an increase in the volume and thus in the amount of honey to be stored.