Beeswax is produced by bees in the form of tiny scales which are "sweated" from the segments on the underside of the abdomen. To stimulate the production of beeswax the bees gorge themselves with honey or sugar syrup and huddle together to raise the temperature of the cluster. To produce one pound of wax requires the bees to consume about ten pounds of honey.
At normal hive temperature of 37C (100F), wax can support a considerable weight and yet still be moulded by the bee's jaws. Beeswax melts at 64C (147F).
Beeswax has a high resistance to the passage of heat but if cooled quickly will become pale in colour, more brittle and liable to develop cracks due to rapid contraction. For this reason wax for exhibition is cooled as slowly as possible to preserve the texture and colour. To preserve the aroma of fresh wax it should never be raised more than a few degrees above melting point and then only for a short period. Whilst stories abound of last years exhibit being left to soak in honey over the winter to retain the honey aroma, fresh wax and low temperatures are an unbeatable combination
IMPORTANT: When melting beeswax always use a water bath by placing the container of wax - probably a small saucepan - inside a larger pan of water. Never place a pan of wax directly on a hot plate or gas ring. Beeswax can easily become damaged by localised overheating and if it ignites can burn more ferociously than any chip pan fire. Beeswax does not boil - it just gets hotter and hotter until it ignites.
Wax should only be melted in stainless steel, plastic, or tin plated containers. Iron rust and containers of galvanised iron, brass or copper all impart a colour to beeswax and aluminium is said to make the wax dull and mud coloured. The next time you see a very orange wax in may have been melted in a copper pan.
The uses for beeswax are many but these days the most common are for better quality candles, soap, skin care products, the coatings of sweets and pills, furniture polish, batik art, putting on drawer runners to make them slide smoothly and in quilting and heavy sewing it's put on the thread to ease its passing through tough materials.The polishing of parade boots by servicemen (thank you Larry) and for the mouth piece of Didgeridoos!
Beeswax: History & Use
We usually think of honey as the most important product from the bee hive, but historically beeswax has played an equally important role. In some parts of the world it is still the only easily obtainable wax. From the very earliest of times it has been used to make candles, but that is just one of its many uses. Female worker honey bees secrete wax from four pairs of special glands, called wax glands, on the underside of their abdomens. The wax is secreted as a clear liquid onto wax mirrors or plates that lie under the glands. As the wax comes in contact with air, it hardens and becomes a bright white. Most beeswax is yellow because it is contaminated with pollen and the gums and resins that bees collect. Pollen is the adult honey bee's source of protein and they collect it in great quantity. The gums and resins, which beekeepers call "propolis," are used to varnish the inside of the bee's nest. Both pollen and propolis are generally yellow or red though either may be many colors. The fragrant odor of beeswax and the pleasant odor produced by burning candles is also largely due to these contaminants, especially propolis.
The Source of Beeswax
Only honey bees make beeswax. They use it to build their honeycombs. The six-sided comb cells are used for food storage and as chambers in which the young are reared. Beeswax melted from combs has long been a widely traded product. Once molded into cakes, beeswax is practically indestructible. No insects or animals will feed on blocks of beeswax, thus it may be stored for long periods of time. Beeswax is, and has been, used in a variety of ways. It is a major commodity for beekeepers and makes up about five percent of their incomes.
How Honey Comb Is Made
Honey bees make six-sided cells that are space-efficient and the best shape to accommodate a round, growing honey bee larva. A six-sided cell is also stronger than a square or round shape. To make comb, the bees remove the bits of wax called wax scales from the undersides of their abdomen and chew and mold them into place. The production of beeswax is stimulated when there is a great supply of flower nectar such as when clover and alfalfa bloom. Bees do not build comb before it is needed.
Beeswax In Ancient Times
Beeswax was used in the casting of metal statues and figures. It is still used this way in some parts of the world. First, the object to be cast in metal is carved and sculpted in beeswax. Next, the wax is covered with wet clay that is baked and hardened, then the wax is melted away and the day serves as a metal mold. Some of the most lifelike paintings are the encaustic paintings, using hot beeswax, made by artists in Egypt about 1,600 to 2,000 years ago. The painters used an iron plate, heated from underneath with charcoal, which melted the beeswax and kept it liquid. Powdered pigments were mixed with the liquid wax, then applied to a canvas. The finished painting was subjected to the sun's heat and the whole painting was "burned in" or blended, thus the word encaustic.
Later Uses for Beeswax
Beeswax has been used by many cultures dating back to ancient times for a variety of uses ranging from batik designs on fabrics to sealing wax for important documents, to cosmetics. Even today, beeswax is still used for grafting plants and making the finest candles available. Grafting wax, used when two plants are grafted together, was originally made from beeswax. A good grafting wax must be pliable, non-toxic to the plant tissue, and last at least two months after the graft is made to allow time for the cells to grow and join together. Cheaper waxes are more commonly used to make today's grafting wax but some professionals still insist on beeswax. One formula for grafting wax that is probably hundreds of years old contains one part beeswax, one part plant resin, and sufficient lard or tallow to make the wax soft and pliable. Charcoal is frequently added to prevent the sun's rays from hitting the newly joined tissue. This remains a practical formula for home use today. Beeswax makes the finest candles known. Properly made beeswax candles produce a bright flame, do not smoke or sputter, and produce a fragrant odor while being burned. These candles may be stored for long periods of time without deterioration because of the stability of the beeswax. However, over time some of the low melting point components in the wax may migrate to the surface and give the candle a frosty or antique appearance. This is called bloom and is easily removed by wiping the candle with a cloth. Candles may be dipped, molded, rolled, extruded, or cast. For the home candle maker, dipping and molding are the most practical. Those interested in making their own candles should contact a specialty shop that carries wicking, wax, molds, and other necessary paraphernalia. Working with molten wax can be dangerous. Because waxes are flammable, they should be handled with care. There are dozens of other uses for beeswax. Every sewing kit should have a small cake of beeswax used to wax threads that are to be run through a needle. Carpenters use beeswax to coat nails being driven into hardwoods. Beeswax and turpentine make a fine care and/or furniture polish. Beeswax can be used to waterproof cloth. The list goes on and on. Today, we import as much beeswax as we produce in the U.S. indicating the continuing demand for this intriguing natural product.