If you ask any beekeeper what bees forage for, you’ll get this answer 99% of time: Nectar, Pollen, and “stuff” to make propolis. This is a perfectly satisfactory answer, especially from a practical standpoint. However, it is important to note that bees can and do forage for anything that they need. Today, we’ll talk about foraging for wax.
Have you ever had a colony die out and purposely left the honey frames exposed for other bees to clean up? At first, you notice how bees flock to the frames and eat out all of the honey. If you leave the frames there long enough, you may also see that the frames of new white wax still have some bees crawling around on them. If you inspect those bees even closer, you may see them ripping pieces of wax off of the frame with their mandibles and sticking it to their hind legs, much like they do with pollen. The result will be (could be) a frame with jagged edges around the cell, but it takes very close inspection to notice. As far as I can tell, they only go after the new wax, probably because it is more pliable and they can put it into production right away as if it was newly secreted wax.
We’re big on having our bees pull their own wax every year. However, if we expect them to pull wax in the fall, we usually provide wax foundation to speed up the process. Last weekend, while building some frames with wax foundation, I noticed a bee actively “foraging” for wax on the sheets of wax foundation that I was using. So I took the opportunity to document the behavior.
If you pay close attention to the video below, you’ll see the bee ripping off pieces of wax and using her middle legs to stick the wax to her pollen baskets in her hind legs. You can also clearly see the lumps of wax on her hind legs.
Is there a practical application for this behavior? Not for most people. But I would say that if you use foundationless frames (or a top bar hive) and expect your bees to build new wax every year, you may want to consider leaving some wax around for the bees to reuse as needed. Most foundationless beekeepers crush and strain their honey and are left with new wax (from the current year) as a byproduct of the honey extraction process. The wax is left with a honey residue and most people let their bees clean it up anyway, so why not leave it there a little longer in case the bees want to reuse it? I caution to only do this with new white wax (which is what most foundationless beekeepers have every year) as they don’t seem interested in the old combs. Also, be careful that you don’t leave any frames with honey/pollen unattended as that will encourage wax moths and other pests to move in.
As I mentioned, most beekeepers will have no practical application for this behavior. But if you hadn’t noticed it before, next time somebody asks you what bees forage for, you can add wax to the list.