Teenage bees are right: It’s none of your beeswax

The other day my wife wanted to know what was in a box by the front door. I told her it was “none of her beeswax.” I wouldn’t recommend that you say that to your wife, even if it is true. In this case it was a box of beeswax for a customer so, technically, it really wasn’t any of her beeswax.

I learned that phrase from my sister. She often told me things were none of my beeswax. But because our grandfather was a beekeeper I thought she literally meant beeswax. I couldn’t understand what her comment had to do with my questions. 

Anyway, using the phrase “none of your beeswax” in this emotionally loaded context made me wonder why beeswax should be no one’s beeswax. Then it occurred to me that I could do something about that. You can do so little about most of the problems in this world that it was invigorating to discover I could make something, at least partly, anyone’s “beeswax!” 

Did you know that making beeswax is a specialized activity? Only certain bees get to participate? I guess some bees had to have a degree, or maybe belong to a union, or something. It would be a little like a person who isn’t allowed to teach children anything unless they are certified by the state. It turns out that the ability to make beeswax is just age related. You probably thought that bees were bees, and the idea of a teenage or middle-aged bee might not have occurred to you. 

Strange as this may seem, it gets even stranger. The bees that make beeswax, the very foundation of the hive, actually turn out to be the teenagers. They aren’t literally teenagers, of course. That would be preposterous. Bees only live, on average, about 62 days. But bees do go through three stages in their lives: About 21 days as immature bees restricted to the nursery, another 21 days as hive bees that can’t drive yet, and then, lastly, they get their license and are gone — at least until they need a place to eat and sleep.   

Hive bees, the ones without driver’s licenses, are the only ones that have mature wax glands on the ventral surface of their abdomen. These glands develop over several days after birth, but then generally stop functioning by the time the bee starts flying and foraging. This means that most of the honeycomb in a hive is the result of child labor. I know that sounds crazy, but it does suggest an interesting social experiment. It might even be cheaper than schools. 

It takes about seven pounds of honey to make a pound of wax. I’m not sure how many pounds of honey it takes to make a pound of fat. Anyway, that’s one reason why beeswax is so expensive. They say you get more flies with honey than with vinegar. I don’t know if that’s true, but you can definitely get more money for honey than for beeswax.

Beeswax is initially as clear as glass and doesn’t become yellow and opaque until it has been chewed and manipulated by the bees. Oh, and beeswax can only be formed by bees when the temperature in the hive is between 91 degrees and 97 degrees — union shop rules. The standards also are very high. Beeswax must be extruded from these wax glands in little scales only a tenth of a millimeter thick and no more than three millimeters long. Bees that fail to perform this act precisely can’t be fired, though. So they are usually moved into mid-management. 

One of the first things a beekeeper must learn is how to work with the bee union. Each spring a new agreement has to be worked out with the queen. Management gets part of the profit, but the actual operation of the hive is simply none of their beeswax.

Gary McCallister, .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address), is a professor of biology at Colorado Mesa University.


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