How does a honey bee build honey comb

It’s an amazing process honey bees building that incredibly perfect honey comb, and what’s more working in teams.  The question is how?  Can you see them hanging together by their legs?  This is called festooning, the action of hanging together to bridge open spaces in a hive; they do this by holding together with their legs, which actually have pads and hooks, and each leg with it’s hooks, holds on to another bees hooks.  It’s a version of creating a scaffold.  As you know our honey bees build their hives with beeswax that is made by the young bees who secrete it from glands, in flakes of beeswax, which they then make into those amazing 6-sided cells with their mouth parts. It is said that the honey bee does this so that when they swarm into one space they can hang together.

Imagine those wild hives, where you see honey bees wrapped around a tree trunk, hanging together in these chains; amazing, really, did we ever consider how they all collected and held together in a space like that?  One would assume they simply sit on top of one another; but it is a far more perfect arrangement than that, this festooning.  They also use festooning to hang out of the entrance of a hive in warm weather, cooling off bee-style!  But actually, this behaviour allows ventilation for the brood nest.

The bees also hang together in sheets between frames of a man-made hive, sometimes this pattern is as wide and deep as the frame itself.  One beekeeper explained that sometimes when you slowly separate two frames during comb-building season, you see bees stretched between the frames ‘like wires on a power pole until they finally let go’.

What is interesting is the different thinking from beekeepers about why they do this.  Some say they are measuring the distance between frames, others, as we’ve mentioned before see it as a kind of scaffolding from which they build the frames.  And really interestingly is that some say bees can only produce wax from a festooning position.

Jürgen Tautz the world-renowned German bee biologist at the University of Würzburg, has a different opinion and says, “The function of the living chain that is formed by bees where new combs are being built, or old combs repaired, is completely unknown.”

Here in South Africa the Cape honey bee was studied by researchers Muller and Hepburn and they found that workers produced the same amount of wax whether they were in a festoon or not. They also found that, except in winter, half the new wax originated from bees in a festoon and half from bees elsewhere in the nest; and what’s really confusing to the argument is that in winter nearly all new wax came from non-festooning bees.

Festoon or not, they create a miracle in math with their honey comb, and maybe we don’t need to know how to know it’s simply genius!  Everything about our honey bees and their superorganism is simply genius.

The photograph shown here was taken by photographer and beekeeper Brandon Dill and offers us a view into a world where we can see that there is nothing about our honey bees that is random, everything they do has an exact purpose; sometimes we just don’t know what that is, what we do know is that without our honey bees our world would not look or operate in nature the way it does.  Perfectly.

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