Many thanks to Alicia Normand for submitting this article.
Beeswax is a product unique to social bees and young developing worker bees need to be fed both honey and pollen to enable them to produce wax when they become adult. Beeswax is a blend of around 300 components and at least 48 contribute to the aroma. It is naturally white but is coloured by pigments that are found in the pollen that bees collect.
Beeswax is secreted by worker honeybees from four pairs of wax glands situated on the underside of the abdomen, which are functional when the bees are between 9 and 17 days old. The temperature within the hive has to be about 33º-36º C (maintained for at least 2 hrs) to enable the workers to secrete the wax. The beeswax is used to make cells in which the Queen will lay eggs and for the comb that is used to store both pollen and nectar.
The wax is produced by the bees as a very small scale, each scale being about 3mm x 0.1mm thick. The wax scale is manipulated by the worker bees’ mouth parts which takes 4 minutes, then the wax is fashioned into the typical hexagonal shaped cells.
Here are some interesting facts about beeswax:
The bees need food to be able to produce wax and it takes between 5½ and 8 lbs of honey to make 1 lb wax comb.
It melts around 147ºF 63º- 65ºC and solidifies at 146.3º F
It requires ½ million scales to make 1 lb wax.
Each bee takes 12 hours to produce 4 pairs of wax scales so a lot of time and effort is required to make the comb.
If one bee makes 8 scales in 12 hours how long does it take 10,000 workers to make 1 lb of wax? The answer is 3 days
Or to put it another way……
It takes 66,000 bee hours to make the 77,000 cells which can be constructed from 1 kg of beeswax which is made from 991,000 scales!
Comb, although light in weight has great plasticity and is extremely strong enabling 1 Kg of honeycomb to hold 22kg of honey.
Some history of beeswax
Beeswax has always had a far wider range of uses than any other bee product. There are records of wax having been used by sorcerers as early as 2830BC usually to make figurines of men or animals that could come to life. It was also sometimes used in mummification and the coffins in which the embalmed bodies were transported were made airtight with beeswax. In Ancient Egypt small models made of pure beeswax often depicted their gods.
In the 11th century there are records of huge quantities of beeswax being used by the Church, usually in the form of candles. For example: the chief church in Wittenburgh before the Reformation used 35,000 pounds of wax. Every monastery and abbey had an apiary to meet this need.
In the days of Marco Polo honey and wax were abundant in Russia and tribute to the Tartar Kings was partly paid in wax. Wax was also used to pay rent in Britain. In 1258 "Roger Wiskard paid rent for one toft [dwelling house] half a stone of wax". Wax was of great value and only the rich had beeswax candles the poor having to make do with tallow. The candles were also used to measure time.
In the 1430s wax chandlers were making a huge profit selling wax at 6d for a candle or wax image so Henry VI ordered that they might only charge 3d on the pound of wax beyond the value of the plain wax. The only exception was for funeral lights "to be made for Nobles that do die!" Apparently the wax chandlers were allowed to make a good profit on these candles!
Collection of beeswax
The wax can be harvested from the hive and the process of melting and filtering is commonly known as rendering. In modern beekeeping beeswax for processing may come from various sources. Cappings (the wax removed from the surface of the comb prior to extraction of ripe honey), give the best quality beeswax and the highest yield. Wax scraped from hive walls or frames is less good since it may be contaminated with propolis. Dark combs, culled from the hives because of their age, are of least use, yielding very little wax.
When beeswax is taken from the hive it needs to be cleaned before it can be used. First it is melted in a bain marie (a water bath). Wax melts at 65ºC and solidifies at 64½ºC. The wax is filtered through a coarse cloth when it is liquid, poured into a mould and allowed to set. When cool there will be a layer of dirt on the underside which can be scraped off the wax. The wax is then melted again and strained through a fine cloth. It will now be ready for use.
Some uses of beeswax
Production of foundation for use in hives
Candles and models
Water resistant preparations for walls
Air-permeable waterproofing compositions
Finishes for leather, textiles, wood, paper
Grafting in horticulture
As a lubricant in many different areas of industry
In electrical engineering as an electret
As a resist eg. In the batik method of dying cloth or in etching with acid
In sewing - to strengthen the thread and lubricate pins