Additional Math Pages & Resources

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Beeswax

If you want to understand bees it's helpful to have some elementary school math skills. Yesterday we learned that a bee produces 1-2 teaspoons of honey in her working lifetime.

Here's the question for today:

Q. How much beeswax can a bee produce in her lifetime?

This will require some background information. A worker bee collects pollen and nectar from flowers. The pollen adheres to the hairs on the bee, and the nectar is swallowed. When full, our worker bee flies back to the hive where the pollen gets cleaned off, and the nectar is burped-up into the open cells in the honeycomb.


A bunch of the youngest bees stay in the hive all the time, taking care of this business and fanning their wings over the open cells to evaporate the nectar until it reaches the right concentration and viscosity. A few cells are used to store the pollen; others are used by the queen as egg-laying chambers. Once the eggs hatch the baby bees live in cells until they are ready to get out and get to work.


Bees produce beeswax by eating large amounts of honey and excreting tiny flakes of beeswax out of special glands on their abdomens. Other bees collect the flakes, chew them up, and build the combs. It takes about 1 million flakes of wax to make a kilogram of honey. This picture (thanks to Wikipedia Commons) shows some grains of bee pollen, a wing from a bee, and some scales of wax next to a match.


Because making wax is so much work for the bees, and it distracts them from making honey, beekeepers usually take great care not to harm the combs. Of course we can use beeswax for lots of useful things. If you go to the website of BeeswaxCo you can learn more.

You will learn that it takes 6-8 pounds (let's say 7 lbs) of honey to make 1 pound of wax.

By checking the Honey Calculator we find that 1 teaspoon of honey equals 7 grams, or 1/4 ounce of honey. There are 16 ounces in a pound, and 7 pounds of honey in a pound of wax.

A. One Bee's Lifetime Output = 1 teaspoon. Multiply by 4 to get an ounce - so four bees make an ounce. One ounce x 16 = a pound of honey. So 64 bees make a pound of honey. Multiply 64 by 7 to make a pound of beeswax. That's 448 bees! So one bee produces about 1/450th of a pound. 

How can we check our work? There are 454 grams in a pound, so each bee produces about 1 gram of beeswax. That's 1/7th of the weight of a teaspoon (a bee's lifetime output of honey). It takes 7 parts honey to make 1 part wax, so our answer checks out.

Roughly speaking, we take the lifetime output of 450 bees when we harvest a pound of beeswax! The current price for all this work is only about $10.