Minding your beeswax
There’s more to beekeeping than honey
Honey is great, but it isn’t the only useful thing you can get from your busy bees. Beeswax, propolis, and royal jelly are just some of the other substances produced by bees – and harvested by beekeepers.
Beeswax is one of the most well-known and commonly used bee byproducts. Bees construct their honeycomb by producing this wax – a complex mix of over 250 compounds. Each worker bee has eight abdominal wax glands, and creates the building material by mixing wax from her glands with her saliva. The resulting honeycomb keeps eggs and larvae safe and dry, and protects stored honey from the cold and wet.
Humans have used beeswax in a number of different ways for thousands of years. We explain why it’s such a useful product, and how to make the most of the wax your bees produce.
We’ve made beeswax our own
Beeswax might have been made just for humans. We’ve used it for centuries in a wide variety of products – from cosmetics to furniture polish and everything in between. Beeswax candles are clean-burning and smokeless, and it’s even claimed that they purify the air by releasing negative ions.
A coating of beeswax over cheese keeps it from going mouldy, and a fine, sprayed layer offers surface protection for fruit. You’ll find beeswax in health products, shoe polish, Indonesian batik-dyeing, and as an aid to control bleeding during bone surgery. Who knew?
Harvesting honey? Collect your beeswax too
Those cappings that you have to cut off when you’re harvesting honey are a source of the best beeswax. They might seem to be full of brown muck, but don’t throw them away – wrap them in cheesecloth ready for purifying.
You can also use honeycomb from frames, but it’s dirtier, and your bees will have to spend a lot of time and energy making more. If you’re sure you aren’t going to need it for your hives, scrape the comb off the frames, break it into small chunks, and put it in cheesecloth too.
Cleaning up your wax
Before you go any further, be warned – beeswax is hard to get rid of. Make sure your purifying tools – pot, spoon, double boiler, strainers and filters – are designated for cooking beeswax. Once you use them for that, they won’t be much good for anything else without a lot of cleaning.
Put your cheesecloth parcels into a pot of hot water and simmer gently. Beeswax doesn’t dissolve in water – but it does melt, at around 63°C. It won’t be long before you can fish the cheesecloth out of the ‘wax water’. Pour the liquid into a container and let it cool – the wax will rise to the surface and harden, leaving dirty water underneath.
After boiling, the wax will still be somewhat dirty – purifying is the next step. Melt your slightly cleaner cake of wax in a double boiler, and pour it through a filter to sift out the rest of the impurities. You can start with a metal sieve for the big chunks, and then pour it again through a coffee filter (but don’t use it for coffee after this).
Now you have purified beeswax, ready to use. Combine it with linseed oil for a great furniture polish, make your favourite recipe for lip balm, or produce delicious-smelling wax candles. You can even pour a thin layer over jars of preserves to seal in the freshness.
Dealing with commercial production
If you’re a commercial beekeeper, of course, a pot on a stove is unlikely to be big enough to deal with your beeswax production. When you have a large volume to deal with, or you don’t fancy leaving behind a strong beeswax smell in your home kitchen, a solar or electric wax-melter may be the answer.
A solar melter is basically a black box with a glass lid. Break up and wash your wax in water, then strain it into a screen-lined container that will fit in the melter. When your wax is melted, pour it through an oil filter to sift out the fine particles. If you’re washing smaller batches and saving them until you have enough for a melt, spread the wax chunks on a paper towel and dry off the water, to avoid growing mould.
Electric wax melters aren’t necessarily cheap, but can be worth the price if you’re producing high volumes of wax for commercial use. They’re time-saving too – you can melt the wax off whole frames, without bothering to scrape, break up or wash the comb.
Whether you want to produce large amounts for the commercial market, or simply enjoy it as a bonus extra from your hobby hives, extracting and purifying beeswax is worth the effort - and surprisingly satisfying.
Want advice, more information, or products for beeswax extraction?Talk to the team at Ecrotek for help.