Beeswax: History & Use
We usually think of honey as the most important product from the
hive, but historically beeswax has played an equally important role. In
parts of the world it is still the only easily obtainable wax. From the
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
called wax glands, on the underside of their abdomens. The wax is secreted
a clear liquid onto wax mirrors or plates that lie under the glands. As
wax comes in contact with air, it hardens and becomes a bright white.
Most beeswax is yellow because it is contaminated with pollen
gums and resins that bees collect. Pollen is the adult honey bee's
protein and they collect it in great quantity. The gums and resins, which
beekeepers call "propolis," are used to varnish the inside of the
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
The Source of Beeswax
Only honey bees make beeswax. They use it to build their
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
product. Once molded into cakes, beeswax is practically indestructible.
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
How Honey Comb Is Made
Honey bees make six-sided cells that are space-efficient and
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
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
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.
still used this way in some parts of the world. First, the object to be
in metal is carved and sculpted in beeswax. Next, the wax is covered with
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,
hot beeswax, made by artists in Egypt about 1,600 to 2,000 years ago.
painters used an iron plate, heated from underneath with charcoal, which
melted the beeswax and kept it liquid. Powdered pigments were mixed with
liquid wax, then applied to a canvas. The finished painting was subjected
the sun's heat and the whole painting was "burned in" or blended,
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
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
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
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,
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
making their own candles should contact a specialty shop that carries wicking,
wax, molds, and other necessary paraphernalia. Working with molten wax
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.