What is honeycomb? Honeycomb is a cluster of repeating hexagonal beeswax cells that fill the interior of a honey bee beehive. While adequate, this definition raises more questions than it actually answers. Let's take a closer look at this miraculous substance and its ingenious design!
Why the hexagon? Honeybees are not unique in their selection of the hexagon as a structural building shape. The hexagon has been utilized throughout evolution due to its simplicity, strength, and durability. All vascular plants maintain a water-transporting tissue called xylem. This tissue is designed to move water from the plant roots to the plant leaves where it will be used in the process of photosynthesis to build the glucose molecule. Water from the soil and carbon dioxide from the atmosphere combine to build plant sugars in a process known as carbon fixation. The hexagon is employed by many plant species in the structure of xylem tissue.
The hexagon lattice structure is also incorporated into animal bone tissue. The hexagonal matrix of bone tissue provides strength but also gives bones a lightweight quality. This enhances mobility without creating undue stress on skeletal muscle groups.
Honey bees are not the only insect to make use of this brilliant design. Paper wasps (Polistinae) construct their nests from paper using a repeating hexagonal honeycomb pattern. Although these insects do not produce honey, they do use hexagonal cells for developing brood just as the honey bee does.
The hexagon is the base shape for a matrix that minimized the used of construction material while at the same time maximizing the strength and reducing the weight of the final product.
What is beeswax? Beeswax is the substance from which honeycomb is made. Beeswax is a lipid-like all other waxes. Honeybees secrete beeswax from eight glands with openings on their lower abdomen. Honeybees must consume honey in order to produce beeswax. The beeswax hardens on the abdomen region and flakes off in clea flat pieces known as scales. These scales are then chewed and softened by worker bees and formed into hexagonal cells within the honeycomb. Although the scales are initially clear, they become opaque following the chewing and re-forming.
Why do honeybees make beeswax comb? Honeycomb is the internal structure of the honeybee hive. The comb forms the "rooms" that are the home of the honeybee. A single hexagonal structure is known as a cell. Individual cells serve the colony in different ways. Upon returning from her mating flight, the queen bee lays her eggs in the cells that have been constructed by her female worker bees. These cells are known as brood cells and will serve as incubation chambers for developing honeybees. The brood cells are meticulously maintained by the female worker bees. After all the brood is the future of the colony!
Is Honeycomb Nutritious? Honeycomb is basically beeswax and raw honey. The beeswax has very little nutritional value with the exception of trace amounts of vitamin A. However since our system does not break down beeswax, it is a very good source of roughage. Raw honey as we have discussed is very nutritious; packed full of vitamins, enzymes, pollen, and antioxidants. Interestingly, the most nutritious of all raw honey is honey still sealed in the wax cells of the honeycomb. Honey in its purest form (inside the cells of honeycomb) contains very little water. But honey, when exposed to air, has a tendency to pull water from the atmosphere. So, honey that is removed from the comb and exposed to air holds around 12% more water than honey left sealed in the comb. This dilution creates a slight but measurable difference in nutritional value by weight. Honey that remains sealed in the beeswax honeycomb cells is without question the purest form of raw honey!