Midnite Bee-Beekeeper's: Article ARTICLES Beeswax: History & Use
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.