Beeswax is a pure, natural product made by honey bees. Worker bees secrete the wax to build honeycomb. The comb provides storage for honey and bee pollen, as well as cells to rear the brood. Beeswax has many uses both in and outside of the beehive. In this blog post, we will take a look at what beeswax is, how it is made, and what it is used for.
How is Beeswax Made?
Honey bees are one of the few types of bees that produces wax. Did you know that to produce one pound of wax bees must visit around 30 million flowers and ingest about six to eight pounds of honey?
A time-consuming Task
It takes about 12 hours for a bee to produce 8 wax flakes! Each wax scale measures approx. 3 millimeters (0.12 in) across and is 0.1 mm (0.0039 in) thick. To produce one a gram of wax bees need to produce around 1,100 scales! So the next time you light a beeswax candle, think of the work and patience these busy little bees have put into making it!
When the worker bees return from foraging, they regurgitate the nectar collected in their crop (honey stomach) to other bees. Inside the crop the content is mixed with enzymes. These enzymes change the nectar´s pH and chemical composition, making it more suitable for long-term storage. They keep regurgitating the liquid until most of the water is gone. Once the nectar turns into honey, it is deposited into the honeycomb. To speed up the evaporation process of the remaining water from the liquid, the workers huddle together and fan the comb with their wings.
The workers start to seal the comb with a secretion of liquid from their abdomen once most of the water is evaporated. The ambient temperature in the hive must be 33 to 36 °C (91 to 97 °F) for worker bees to produce wax in eight pairs of abdominal glands. These glands metabolize sugars from honey in wax-gland-associated fat cells into beeswax. The wax secreted as scales that consist of a white, fatty substance that is clear without color. The bees then work the wax with their mouths and forelegs until it becomes malleable. During this process the wax changes to an opaque color and gets progressively darker as it becomes contaminated with pollen and propolis from the workers, until it has the familiar yellowish-browny color.
An Architectural Masterpiece
When the wax is soft enough, the bees start to build the honeycomb. Contrary to the belief that honeycombs start off hexagonal, fresh honeycomb cells actually start off as a circle. However, when connected to the other cells they are slightly ´stretched´, and quickly take on the familiar rounded hexagonal form. This geometric shapes makes the honeycomb especially strong, and allows maximum capacity with minimal material used. The comb is generally built from the bottom up.
The bees coat the finished cellls in a thin layer of wax. This gives them its characteristic shine and also makes them water-resistant. Another important function for the outer layer of wax is to protect the comb from parasites like the wax moth. The high surface-to-volume ratio of the honeycomb helps to ensure that the honey remains at a constant temperature.
Bees are frugal little creature leaving nothing to waste. Beekeepers have noticed that bees sometimes also rework wax from removed cappings that have fallen to the bottom of the hive when they uncap honey.
What is in the honeycomb?
Cells have different sizes depending on their purpose; cells used to store honey, pollen or nectar are larger than those used to rear brood. Although there are exceptions; the cells for drone larvae and the queen are much bigger due to the size of the larvae. The queen often lays her eggs in special large queen cells, which hang down from the comb like a teardrop.
The function of the beeswax comb is to store honey and bee pollen, and also to rear the brood. While the food storage cells are always on the outer edge of the honeycomb, the cells for the brood are always located in the center where there are more bees. This ensures a more constant temperature in the center, which is important for the development of the larvae and pupae.
Did you know that one kilogram of beeswax can store between 22 kg (49 lb) to 30 kg (66 lb) of honey?
Composition and Properties of Beeswax
Beeswax is a fragrant solid at room temperature. The exact composition of bee wax varies depending on the geographical location of the hive, but it typically contains around 40 percent fatty acids, 20 percent esters, and 10 percent alcohols. It is insoluble in water and resistant to many acids, but soluble in most organic solvents.
Beeswax has many properties that make it useful both in and outside of the beehive. It is water-resistant and has a relatively low melting point of 62 to 64 °C (144 to 147 °F), making it ideal for use in candles and as a sealant. Candles made from beeswax burn brighter and longer and have a natural, pleasant and non-toxic fragrancy.
How is Beeswax Harvested?
Most beekeepers harvest their own beeswax. It´s a simple but quite messy process. First, the honey is removed from the honeycomb. The empty combs are then melted in water. To remove impurities, the wax is then strained, and the residue is pressed to extract any remaining wax. The purified wax is then poured into molds to solidify.
Uses outside the Hive
Beeswax is used to make a whole range of products. For centuries sealants made from beeswax are used as a legal or royal decree on official letters. Another well known use of beeswax is as polish for shoes, furniture and surfboards.
Encaustic painting is an ancient technique that uses molten wax as a binder for pigment. The word “encaustic” comes from the Greek enkaiein, meaning “to burn in”. Rediscovered in the 20th century the technique is used by artists such as Jasper Johns, Bill Viola, and Chuck Close. It is also used as modeling wax, for musical instruments (strings, percussion instruments) to name but a few.
In food production beeswax is used to coat cheese to make it airtight and protect it against mold, as a food additive (E901), or as a glazing agent in small quantities to protect fruit against water loss, and make them appear fresher and more appetizing. Beeswax food wraps are also a great alternative for plastic wrappings.
Beeswax Uses in Cosmetics
The cosmetic industry uses beeswax as a barrier cream to protect against the elements of the weather and to soothe skin conditions like eczema. It is often found in form of lip balm and chapsticks, hand creams, or other protective creams. It is often asked ´is beeswax good for dreads´? The answer is that it is used in many hair products, such as hair pomades and waxes. It is a great natural product that hold the dreads in place, especially during the early stages.
The pharmaceutical industry takes advantage of the mild anti-inflammatory, antibacterial and germicidal properties found in beeswax to create products like ointments, creams and salves.
At present there are only few studies about beeswax, although it is proven to have mild anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial and anti-viral properties. These qualities offer the perfect balance of nourishment to calm the skin, keep it clear and bacteria free, help to fight infection and heal wounds. In surgery for example, beeswax is used as an ingredient in surgical bone wax to control bleeding from bone surfaces during surgery.
As you can see, there are many uses for beeswax outside of the beehive. This versatile substance is truly a wonder product!
Is Beeswax safe for Babies?
This is a valuable question given that babies up to 1 year old should not eat honey due to the risk of infant botulism. However, according to bee expert and Professor of Entomology Marion Ellis, there is no evidence that beeswax contains botulism spores. If there was, the spores would become inactive when the wax is melted for a product.
Is Beeswax flammable?
Although it has a pleasant aroma, however, beeswax is highly flammable and can ignite quickly. Wax should therefore never be melted near the hive. At home, never leave a burning beeswax candle unsupervised or place directly on any surfaces without candlestick.
Is Beeswax digestible?
Its a natural product and safe for human consumption. Yellow beeswax is FDA approved is the USA as a human food ingredient and is 100% edible and digestible.
Do you have any tips on how to use beeswax? Let us know in the comments below!