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Of all the benefits honeybees can offer, wax is often underused. This is a shame because beeswax is one of the most unique and useful natural products in the animal world. Beeswax is the only natural wax and has never been successfully synthesized under laboratory conditions (in other words, there is no chemical substitute). Nature truly does know best.
How do bees produce wax? It comes down to four pairs of wax glands on the abdomens of worker bees. Interestingly, these glands are at peak production only for a short window of six days (from 12 to 18 days of life) in a worker bee’s life, after they finish feeding young brood with royal jelly but before they leave the hive to become foragers. When engorged with honey, these worker bees secret small, colorless, scale-like wax platelets from their wax glands. These platelets are scraped off by other worker bees and chewed into opaque, pliable pieces by the action of the bees’ enzymes and saliva. The wax is chewed and re-chewed, then attached to the comb to construct the familiar (and space-efficient) hexagonal cells. Bees must consume eight pounds of honey to produce one pound of wax. Wax is literally the foundation for a colony, acting as both a cradle for future generations and a food warehouse for honey storage.
Beeswax has a complicated chemical makeup with almost 300 natural compounds, including fatty-acid esters, hydrocarbons, diesters, triesters, acid polyesters, even a bit of alcohol. Fresh wax is almost pure white, and it later turns a yellow-brown color. (The color of harvested wax depends on pollen sources, as well as levels of refinement during rendering.)
But it’s the properties of beeswax that make it so useful. Beeswax is chemically stable (still pliable after thousands of years!), insoluble in water, and has a high melting point.
The majority of beeswax is recycled into foundation for additional frames. But beeswax has a vast – vast! – array of commercial uses. In fact, historically beeswax was more valuable than honey.
But not all beeswax is the same. There are four main types of beeswax on the market, graded by purity:
- General use/industrial grade (contains some impurities such as pollen, oils, propolis)
- Pharmaceutical/cosmetic grade (fewer impurities; used in food and cosmetic products)
- Organic grade (often used in cosmetics or general use)
If purchasing beeswax (as opposed to rendering your own), keep in mind its intended purpose when deciding what kind of wax you’ll need.
One of the advantages of beeswax is its low boiling point — between 144 degrees F to 147 degrees F. Above 185 degrees F, discoloration can occur. (Take note: the flashpoint of beeswax is 400 degrees F.) Slow and steady heating is the trick.
Of the various beeswax products, candles are usually the first thing that comes to mind, with good reason. Historically, beeswax candles were among the most prized of all lighting options, far superior (and more costly) than tallow candles or rushlights. Beeswax candles burn cleanly, with a bright, white, compact flame. The wax doesn’t smoke or stink. For centuries, beeswax candles were the only light source used in churches because they were considered a symbol of purity. Modern beeswax candles are a sweet-smelling addition to formal dinners or wintertime ambiance.
But candles represent the merest sliver of uses for beeswax. As you can imagine, beeswax was highly valued in historical times, when synthetic options didn’t exist. It was used to waterproof walls, polish wood, lubricate items, glue to hold together woodwork, create models, and even embalm bodies. It toughened sewing thread, preserved food, created waterproof casing (cheeses were often dipped in beeswax), and was even used as writing tablets. During the days of black-powder firearms, beeswax was added to tallow and used to lubricate lead bullets.
Even today, with many synthetic options, beeswax has a huge number of industrial applications and products. It’s used as metal and wood polishes, dry lubricant, food wraps, shoe polish, paste wax, wood preservative, leather balm, car wax, manufacture of adhesives, canvas waterproofing, horticultural grafting, grinding and polishing of optical lenses, crafting of dental implements such as dentures, crowns, and bridges, making of soaps, and as a rust preventative.
Many health and beauty products continue to be made from beeswax. (Being all-natural, it is often the preferred ingredient for many consumers.) Beeswax is said to have anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial properties. Certainly, it contains vitamin A, which helps protect skin from UV radiation and makes skin soft and supple. Its list of uses includes cosmetics, salves, balms, creams, ointments, and hair pomade. These applications are growing in market share as an alternative to toxic commercial products more easily available. Unlike beeswax, the hydrocarbons in paraffin wax can be absorbed through the skin, which then must be detoxed through the liver and kidneys. No wonder gentle nontoxic beeswax continues to be so popular.
For the crafty type, beeswax is used to make crayons and art pastels, modeling clay, and candle bowls. A wonderful craft for children is dipping colorful autumn leaves into melted beeswax, which preserves the color for years to come. (Try hanging dipped leaves from monofilaments for a floaty, ethereal effect.)
Beeswax is also edible, and honeycomb is a sweet treat enjoyed worldwide. The wax is inert and does not interact with the human digestive system, so it passes through the body unaltered. Substances dissolved or encapsulated in wax are released slowly. Some people also chew the wax as a kind of gum. It can also be used as a thickener or bonding agent for candies such as jelly beans or gummy bears. (Be sure to use cosmetic-grade wax for these purposes.)
With thousands of years of history, it’s hard to find a new use for something as all-purpose as beeswax — but an Austrian chef has done just that. He’s developed a technique to cook fish fillets in hot melted beeswax. (Presumably, this is something that should be left in the hands of experts rather than trying it at home.) There is also a molded French dessert called canelé in which the molds are coated with a beeswax-butter mix that adds a glossy and delicious sheen to the outside of the treat. Reading the detailed intricacies of how to create this dessert makes crafting candles or cosmetics sound like a walk in the park.
Beeswax is the ultimate eco-friendly, zero-waste option for endless products. It’s been called the world’s first plastic. For this reason, this ancient, eco-friendly, renewable material will never go out of style (or use).
Originally published in the June/July 2022 issue of Backyard Beekeeping and regularly vetted for accuracy.