May 13, 2023
Where the term, mind your own beeswax originated is uncertain but what we do know is that beeswax is essential to the honeybee colony because it is used to construct the combs in which bees raise their brood (eggs, larvae and pupae of honeybees) and where they store the honey and pollen for winter. Beeswax is the original organic food storage system and to produce just a pound of wax, bees need to ingest 6 – 8 pounds of honey! It is estimated that bees need to visit 2 million flowers to produce a single pound of beeswax.
Beeswax is used to make the foundation of the honeycomb hexagonal cells for raising the brood and storing honey and pollen. The wax cells cradle the larvae and are storage cells for pollen and honey and the entire wax foundation supports the mass of working bees. Beekeepers generally provide the foundations upon which bees build hexagonal cells.
Beeswax is made during the growth phase of the colony between April and June. Wax and comb production is determined by the amount of available nectar, brood rearing (egg laying), the presence of the queen, and favorable temperatures. It is the job of the female worker bees to convert honey to beeswax. Bees between 12 – 18 days of age secrete beeswax as a liquid which hardens on contact with the air.
Here’s how. Bees do this by huddling together to increase the temperature of the hive so it is at least 33° C so that the wax glands in the abdomen can convert the sugar from honey into beeswax which then comes out of small pores to form scales on their abdomen. After the soft wax hardens, the worker bee uses stiff hairs on her hind legs to scrape the wax from her abdomen. She passes the wax forward to her middle legs, and then to her mandibles. The bees chew the wax until it is just the right temperature, consistency and pliable enough to shape into the hexagonal cells that make up the colony’s honeycomb as well as the cells where eggs are laid for raising young bees.
The wax is also used by bees at the end of the honey making process when the nectar that has been collected by the bees and placed into the honeycomb is ready for the bees to cap the honey. This means that a layer of wax is added over the honeycomb so that the honey can be stored for winter. At first, beeswax is clear but becomes yellower from being used to store honey, pollen and raise the brood. The color of beeswax also varies depending on the color of the honey and its age.
The chemistry of the wax varies between genera and species of bees. Beeswax from A. mellifera, or the western honeybee consists of over 300 different compounds. The major group of compounds are alkanes, free fatty acids, monoesters, diesters, and hydroxy monoesters. Fatty alcohols and hydroxy diesters are minor constituents. More specifically:
Beeswax is hydrocarbons (12%–16%) with a predominant chain length of C27–C33, mainly heptacosane, nonacosane, hentriacontane, pentacosane and tricosane; free fatty acids (12%–14%), with a chain length of C24–C32; free fatty alcohols (ca. 1%) of C28–C35; linear wax monoesters and hydroxymonoesters (35%–45%) with chain lengths generally of C40–C48, derived fundamentally from palmitic, 15-hydroxypalmitic and oleic acids; complex wax esters (15%–27%) containing 15-hydroxypalmitic acid or diols, which through their hydroxyl group, are linked to another fatty-acid molecule ; exogenous substances that are mainly residues of propolis, pollen, small pieces of floral component factors and pollution. (Fratini et al., 2016)
That’s probably more information than you bargained for!
Beeswax is harvested at the same time as beekeepers collect the raw honey. First, they pull the beehive frames that are full of honey and capped with beeswax. Then, they scrap off the wax that is covering the honeycomb exposing the raw honey. The frames are placed in a centrifuge, or honey extracting device that extracts the honey along with bits of beeswax. The collected honey is then filtered to remove impurities like bits of dead bees, clumps of propolis and other dirt: what is left is natural beeswax. Next, the beeswax is rendered, or cleaned. Rendering beeswax means melting it in hot water to separate it from impurities like moldy pollen, propolis, larval moults (molting during post-embryonic development) and honey residue.
To filter out the rubbish, the wax must be melted in water and strained. Beeswax melts at 64° C but this is not hot enough for it to run through a cloth or strainer, so it is heated close to the boiling point of water then run through a cloth with no problem. Once melted, the wax and water can be separated from the debris using a straining method. The stuff left in the strainer is called slumgum and is a disgusting mess but great for lighting fires, attracting bee swarms or used as a fertilizer in some agricultural crops. The wax and water are left to cool, then the wax is simply plucked off the top. The wax from the first straining is only partially clean so to get pure beeswax a two-step process is used. The first rendering gets rid of rubbish, then during the second rendering it is broken up, melted and strained once more.
The food industry sometimes uses beeswax as an ingredient for glazes on turkeys, hams and pastries. In the beverage industry bars are using beeswax for richer, smoother cocktails: beeswax is also used as a stiffening agent to thicken oils to form balms and salves. Beeswax may also be used as fragrance in soaps and perfumes and white beeswax as well as beeswax absolute (a solid wax like product) are used to polish pills. Beeswax is frequently used in lip balm since it is all natural, easy to make and very soothing. Make it yourself using high quality beeswax with 1 part beeswax to 2 parts coconut oil by weight. A lot of string waxes are made from beeswax although they are mixed with other ingredients to soften the wax so that it spreads more easily. Waxing a string prevents it from fraying, makes it waterproof, and helps it to retain its twists. Beeswax furniture polish is a safe and natural way to enhance the beauty of wood furniture. It is great for cleaning up damaged pieces, or as a finish for new woodworking projects. It is also great for refurbishing cutting boards.
In addition to using beeswax to make candles, lubricate wood or making your own lip balm, try making your own beeswax wrap, crayons, or body butter. Use it to waterproof your canvas shoes, make bronze items shine, or prevent tools from rusting. Better still, keep your baking pans looking new by buffing them with beeswax before using. Stuck zipper got you frustrated? Just rub a small piece of beeswax along the teeth of the zipper. Flyaway hair got you down? Rub some beeswax between your fingers and smooth over your strands as a styling agent that won’t turn greasy. Beeswax is an incredible all-natural substance with endless possibilities for use.
Make sure to check out our Beeswax Wrap Kit (click here to view) for a fun DIY project that anyone can do!
BeeKeepClub (2022). “How to harvest beeswax – beginners guide”. Retrieved from https://beekeepclub.com/harvest-beeswax/
Beespoke Info (2014). “Rendering beeswax”. Retrieved from http://beespoke.info/2014/01/14/rendering-beewax/
Everts, S. (2015). “Humans used beeswax as long ago as Neolithic era, study finds”. c&en. Retrieved from https://cen.acs.org/articles/93/i45/Humans-Used-Beeswax-Long-Ago.html
Geesbees Honey Company. “How to make beeswax lip balm”. Retrieved from https://www.geesbees.ca/post/how-to-make-beeswax-lip-balm
Flores, C. (2020). “Can you eat beeswax”. The Beeswax Co. Retrieved from https://beeswaxco.com/bulk-beeswax/can-you-eat-beeswax/
Fratini, F., Cila, G., Turchi, B. & Felicioli, A. (2016). Beeswax: A minireview of its antimicrobial activity and its application in medicine. Asian Pacific Journal of Tropical Medicine, 9(9), 839-843. doi.org/10.1016/j.apjtm.2016.07.003.
Austin, K. (2018). “How to make beeswax”. BeeBeeLeaf. Retrieved from https://beebeewraps.com/blogs/news/how-do-bees-make-beeswax
Menezes, J., Athmaselvi, K. A. (2018). Report of Edible Films and Coatings. ScienceDirect. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/agricultural-and-biological-sciences/beeswax
WebMD. “Beeswax – uses, side effects, and more”. Retrieved from https://www.webmd.com/vitamins/ai/ingredientmono-305/beeswax
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