What the Cell?

Thursday 6 June 2024

Whether you are a seasoned beekeeper with years of experience, or just starting out on your apiary journey, it is always important to revisit the basics. By refreshing your memory, or reinforcing seemingly straightforward topics, diving back into fundamentals can greatly enhance your understanding of beekeeping. In honey bee hives there are numerous cells that are built from wax by the bees. These cells serve various functions, including storing food and taking care of brood.  This week we will explore some facts about honey comb cells.

What the Cell?

Honey bees construct hexagonal cells which make up the comb found on frames in the hive. Worker cells, which contain developing female or worker bees, can have an approximate size of 5.20-5.40 mm, and drone cell, where male bees develop,  sizes can range from 6.20-6.40 mm6. The cell are constructed using beeswax that the bees produce from a secretory gland in their abdomen1. These cells are used for different purposes. Nurturing brood and storing food are both functions of the different cells.  By understanding what the different types of cells should look like, beekeepers can help to keep the hive well balanced and healthy. By recognizing these different cell types, beekeepers can also understand hive changes such as when a colony is going to swarm. 

Queen, eggs, drone, capped brood, honey, pollen (©ATTTA 2022)

Nectar, which is an aqueous solution of sugars, amino acids and minerals, is gathered from flowers by honeybees to bring back to the hive using their honey stomach2. Once the forager bee gets back to the hive, it passes on the nectar to a receiver bee, and sucrase gets added to the nectar before being placed in the cell2.  Sucrase is an enzyme that breaks down sucrose into simpler sugar molecules2. It is the job of the receiver bee to break down sucrose, but both forager and receiver bees have the enzyme sucrase7.  The water must be evaporated from the nectar to increase sugar concentration and form honey. Nectar starts at a water content as high as 80% and the bees reduce it to approximately 17-20%2. By evaporating most of the water, it also helps to store the honey long term, because fermenting organisms cannot live there2. Bees actively evaporate nectar by regurgitation and re-ingesting droplets, and passive evaporation is also done by bees using a fanning behavior3 . Once the moisture content is low, and the honey is ripe, it will be capped off with a thin layer of wax so it can be stored indefinitely4 . Honey is hygroscopic, so if the bees cap it the moisture from the environment should not re-enter the cell, which prevents fermentation8. The honey is then used for food when bees cannot forage for nectar.

Cells with capped and uncapped honey (©ATTTA 2024)

Pollen is attracted to the bees and is transferred from the anthers of flowers2. Pollen is an important source of nutrients for bees because it contains a proteins, lipids, vitamins, and minerals5. Bees collect pollen using a small amount of nectar to make the pollen stick and give it beneficial bacteria, then they put it into pollen baskets on their back legs, known as corbiculae2. When back from foraging the honeybees back push the pollen pellets off their legs into an empty cell, or one half filled with pollen. Housekeeping bees then pack the pollen and add nectar from their honey sac to start a fermentation process2. The microflora of pollen contains bacteria, yeasts and molds which all play a role in fermentation9. But primarily the process is driven by the lactic acid bacteria, which produces lactic acid playing a crucial role in preserving the bee bread10. This is how beebread is formed, and bees sometimes cap the cells with honey to preserve it since it does not last as long as honey does2.

In a well-organized hive bees exhibit remarkable precision in arranging their food and offspring.  The outer frames mostly contain food stores. Within a single frame, bees construct an arching figure where honey is stored in the upper cells, followed by a layer of pollen beneath, and finally, the lower cells are designed for brood. Typically, the brood is concentrated in the center of the hive in an area called the brood nest. This interesting aspect of bee behavior will be explored further in an upcoming blog post.

Written by Kaitlyn Newton, ATTTA Seasonal Apiculturist


  1. Xu, R., Ma, B., Yang, Y., Dong, X., Li, J., Xu, X. and Fang, Y., 2024. Proteome-metabolome profiling of wax gland complex reveals functional changes in honeybee (Apis mellifera L.). iScience.

  2. Sammataro, D. and Avitabile, A., 2021. The beekeeper’s handbook fifth addition. Cornell University Press.
  3. Nicolson, S.W., Human, H. and Pirk, C.W., 2022. Honey bees save energy in honey processing by dehydrating nectar before returning to the nest. Scientific Reports12(1), p.16224.
  4. Fernandes, K.E., Frost, E.A., Remnant, E.J., Schell, K.R., Cokcetin, N.N. and Carter, D.A., 2022. The role of honey in the ecology of the hive: Nutrition, detoxification, longevity, and protection against hive pathogens. Frontiers in Nutrition9, p.954170.
  5.  Huang, Z., 2010. Honey bee nutrition. American Bee Journal150(8), pp.773-776.
  6.  Zhang, L., Shao, L., Raza, M.F., Han, R. and Li, W., 2024. The Effect of Comb Cell Size on the Development of Apis mellifera Drones. Life14(2), p.222.
  7.  Zhu, Y.C., Caren, J., Reddy, G.V., Li, W. and Yao, J., 2020. Effect of age on insecticide susceptibility and enzymatic activities of three detoxification enzymes and one invertase in honey bee workers (Apis mellifera). Comparative Biochemistry and Physiology Part C: Toxicology & Pharmacology, 238, p.108844
  8. Kubásek, J., Svobodová, K., Půta, F. and Krejčí, A.B., 2022. Honeybees control the gas permeability of brood and honey cappings. iScience25(11), p.105445.
  9.  Miłek, M., Mołoń, M., Kula-Maximenko, M., Sidor, E., Zaguła, G. and Dżugan, M., 2023. Chemical Composition and Bioactivity of Laboratory-Fermented Bee Pollen in Comparison with Natural Bee Bread. Biomolecules13(7), p.1025
  10.  Kieliszek, M., Piwowarek, K., Kot, A.M., Błażejak, S., Chlebowska-Śmigiel, A. and Wolska, I., 2018. Pollen and bee bread as new health-oriented products: A review. Trends in Food Science & Technology71, pp.170-180.


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If you’d like to connect with ATTTA specialists or learn more about our program, you can:

visit our website at https://www.perennia.ca/portfolio-items/honey-bees/

Email abyers@perennia.ca