Honeycomb is a cluster of repeating hexagonal wax cells that fill the interior structure of the honeybee hive. The honeycomb structure is constructed by two primary parts including the main surface area which is firm and textural - the wax - and then the honey and nectar that is stored within the hexagonal wax compartments. These neat compartments are the building blocks of the honeybee colony, used to store food, rear young, and protect the hive.
Comb construction requires the effort of many worker bees. Young worker bees eat honey and extrude wax through eight glands on their abdomens. As the wax builds up, it flakes off in clear, flat scales which are then gathered and chewed by the worker bees to soften and make the wax malleable. This processed wax builds the comb, working from the hive frame out, attaching new sides to existing cells. It takes a hive between two weeks and two months to produce the comb needed to store honey necessary to feed the colony through the winter months.
Honeycomb, because it is untouched by humans and unprocessed like liquid honey, still retains all its pollen, propolis, and natural health benefits. As a consumer, you eat the whole thing: both the honey and the beeswax. It’s all edible! Biting into a chunk of fresh honeycomb is the purest way to enjoy honey. The wax adds a delightfully chewy texture, and the sensory experience of the wax cells full of honey exploding in your mouth is unlike any other.
Honeycomb holds the potential to disrupt the status quo in the honey industry. Which brings the question - Why is honeycomb so hard to find and why is it so expensive? - to the forefront of the conversation.
Over the past century, comb honey went from being the main product of apiculture to being a niche one. The decline of honeycomb production is directly connected to the economic pressure for beekeepers to move towards economies of scale, over-reliance on chemical inputs, and the over-simplification of living systems.
The production of wax comb is energy expensive for honeybees. Bees need approximately 6-8 pounds of honey to produce just one pound of beeswax. If a beekeeper is relying on honey-production for his living, he will get larger crops of liquid honey each season by reusing his existing honeycomb. When bees can populate a pre-made home, they can then spend most of their lives making honey instead of building the comb. The less time honeybees spend making wax, the more time they can allocate to making liquid honey and more liquid honey equals more profits for the beekeepers.
In conjunction with the popularity amongst beekeepers using wax comb for multiple harvests, many conventional beekeepers will also use processed beeswax or plastic foundation on which the bees can draw their honeycombs. In beeswax foundation, the wax has been collected from cappings, processed, and is then poured and pressed into thin flat sheets. The wax sheets are then embossed with an imprint of cells sized for either worker bees or drones. Foundation is used to control cell size and therefore drone populations and bee size, and to facilitate uniform honeycomb construction. This system is designed for the efficiency of liquid honey production and extraction. But efficiency is not always everything, the health of the colony must be considered.
Foundation is the primary point of bioaccumulation of agrochemicals in a hive. If the wax used to produce the foundation is collected from conventional beehives where pesticides have been used directly in or around the hive, in almost all cases the wax will contain traces of pesticides. Other pesticides and agrochemicals can also be collected by the bees as they forage for pollen and end up in foundation wax. When a hive draws honeycombs from foundation tainted with pesticides the bees are exposed to levels of pesticide that can negatively affect their health, growth, work, and reproduction.
If honeycomb is to be safe for human consumption, the landscape from which it is sourced must be biodiverse and free of harmful chemicals and pollutants. The freshest honeycomb you get is from the beekeeper with integrity who allows his hives to draw their own honeycomb no matter the time it takes them.
As beekeepers move towards economies of scale and methods that favor liquid honey through artificially produced foundation and comb that has bio-accumulated toxins through overuse, we also begin to see large-scale conventional extraction systems mechanized and streamlined to facilitate the production of liquid honey which becomes no longer suitable for comb honey production.
Liquid honey extraction lends itself much more easily to mechanical processing systems, than cut honeycomb processing. Multiple sections of honeycomb can be put into a mechanized extractor at once, the extractor acts a centrifuge to spin the liquid honey from the comb or foundation and is then aggregated into one large container and bottled. These systems are not compatible with the needs of a honeycomb operation.
The post-harvest processing for honeycomb is manually intensive and requires individual assessment and treatment for each section of the honeycomb. This difference in the harvesting process results in higher labor costs per unit for honeycomb than for extracted liquid honey.
Honeycomb is however cheaper to produce for small-scale producers. A producer who is only tending 10-15 hives might choose to sell honeycomb, which they can receive a premium price for while avoiding the cost of liquid honey extraction equipment. For a producer of that scale, the cost of the extraction equipment is greater than the possible time efficiency achieved by harvesting liquid honey.
The very characteristics that make it a challenge to produce honeycomb at scale today - the hyper-accumulation of environmental pollutants and harmful chemicals in the wax and difficulty of industrial mechanization – disposes it to be an agent of change within this larger system.
To reconcile these differences, it may be valuable to develop more cooperative processing models that allow for producers to manage appropriately sized operations and have the efficiency of working cooperatively. Pass the Honey ensures that their producing partners design their inspection and cutting operations to create these cost efficiencies.
The Price of Authenticity
Pass the Honey works with beekeepers who are using a foundationless method, in which hives are allowed to draw their own honeycomb.
These developments are a direct threat to the systems Pass the Honey is working tirelessly on. All pollinators, not just honeybees, are dependent on diversity. They rely on the diversity of flower shapes and pollination needs, but also the wide spectrum of timing for nectar flows. Beekeepers themselves rely on diversity, the diversity that supplies their bees with a nutrition-filled diet, the ecological diversity within their hives that creates a microbial and fungal balance, and the diversity of yields that allows them to form a livelihood in partnership with bees.
Pass the Honey’s fresh honeycomb exists to increase vitality, and to do so, we are focused on re-diversifying agro-ecosystems and apiculture operations. This is an ongoing and iterative effort to grow our relationships to beekeepers and landscapes around the world. We’re creating a demand for honey with integrity.
Pass the Honey depends not just on the integrity of the honeycomb, but also on the integrity (e.g. the wholeness) of the systems that we partner with to create the honeycomb, the hives, the beekeepers, and the agro-ecosystems that they all work in. To produce a quality product, we are identifying and supporting the growth of healthy beekeeping businesses, healthy colonies of bees, and healthy landscapes.