From pollen to candle

St Ives is a seaside town full of crafts – one of the many things you can do is sign up for candle making courses, or wander around the various craft shops looking at candles and other products from beeswax, such as soaps. But do you know how candles and soaps originate, and the process from which the beeswax is produced?

Beeswax is the miracle of the beehive. The comb is built up from nothing and serves as a house, a nursery, and a food pantry. Over the millennia, bees have figured out that by building their combs into hexagons, the combs hold the most amount of honey and require the least amount of wax. The combs also serve as the perfect area for a bee to undergo its metamorphosis from egg to bee.

So what is beeswax? In the simplest terms, it is a wax produced by honey bees of the genus Apis. Beeswax consists of at least 284 different compounds, mainly a variety of long-chain alkanes, acids, esters, polyesters, and hydroxy esters, but the exact composition of beeswax varies with location. It has a specific gravity of about 0.95 and a melting point of over 140°F (60°C). More specifically, it is a wax that is secreted from eight wax-producing glands on the worker bee’s abdomen.

The wax is secreted in thin sheets called scales. The scales, when first secreted, looks a bit like mica flakes. They are clear, colorless, tasteless, and very brittle. Beeswax is typically produced by the younger house bees when they are between twelve and twenty days old. As the bee grows older and begins to collect pollen and nectar, these glands start to atrophy, but their ability to produce beeswax doesn’t disappear completely.

When bees swarm they will rapidly produce wax comb, since they need to quickly create a place for the queen to lay eggs and somewhere to store food. To form the beeswax into honeycomb, the bees will hang in strings and as wax is extruded from the glands of the wax-producing bees it is passed between the legs and mouths of the bees that form the chain, being chewed and molded into shape along the way. The bees will then use this wax to build the familiar hexagon-shaped honey cells.

It is during this process that the wax starts to develop its color and opacity. Depending on what kind of nectar and pollen come into the hive and is consumed by the bees, microscopic bits of the pollen and nectar remain and get added to the wax.

It takes about 1,100 scales to make one gram of wax. Under the right conditions—meaning there is an adequate supply of food and the ambient temperature within the hive is between 91°F and 97°F (33°C and 36°C)—worker bees can produce beeswax on demand. They achieve the right temperature on cooler spring days by clustering around the wax-producing bees when they are building comb.

The production of beeswax in the hive is very costly, however. It takes about 8.4 pounds (3.8 kg) of honey to create 1 pound (425 g) of beeswax. This honey could be used to feed the nonforaging bees or it could be saved for times when nectar is in short supply. For this reason, beeswax is often chewed off in one spot and placed where it is needed. The reusing of old comb also contributes to the color, since it may have been used for brood rearing or honey storage and may contain cocoon remains, propolis, or pollen.

Most of the wax that is commercially available is made from what beekeepers call “cappings.” When bees produce honey, the foraging bee collects the nectar and stores it in one of her two stomachs (one stomach is reserved for honey collection and the other for personal digestion). The nectar in the honey stomach mixes with enzymes and when the bee returns to the hive she places it into a waiting cell. As more cells are filled with nectar, bees fan their wings to create airflow through the hive, which helps dry out the nectar.

By lowering the moisture content of the nectar to less than 19 percent, the bees are ensuring that the honey will not spoil. Then the bees systematically work their way across frames and across honey boxes, capping off each cell to prevent additional moisture loss.

When beekeepers harvest the honey, they remove the frames with honey from the hive and bring them to the honey house for processing. Since all the honey cells have wax caps on them, just adding the frames to a honey extractor would yield no honey. So beekeepers first remove the wax cap using either a hot knife or some sort of flail.

The wax cappings are added to a capping tank and the frames are placed into the extractor to spin out the honey. What a beekeeper does with the wax cappings depends to a certain degree on how many hives he has.

In most cases, heat is applied to the cappings, allowing the honey and wax to liquefy and separate into two layers—honey on the bottom and wax on the top. After several more filterings to remove residual honey and miscellaneous bee parts, the wax looks pretty clean and is generally ready to go.

Beekeepers also melt down old honey and brood comb in order to install clean wax and do general maintenance on the frames. Over the years, brood comb will have raised multiple cycles of bees and the cocoon from the larvae stage will have turned the comb a dark brown. Also, potential pathogens may have been introduced either from the environment or from bees carrying the pathogen with them. These pathogens can decimate a hive rather quickly, which is why beekeepers often replace the old brood comb with clean wax.

While wax from cappings and honey combs is fairly pure, the wax from brood combs contains a wide assortment of “stuff” which may include cocoons from both bees and wax moths, excrement from bee larvae, mites, pollen, propolis, and bee parts. All this extra stuff is called “slum gum,” and removing the slum gum from the wax is a more involved process.

One method is to put the brood combs into burlap sacks and then add the bag to a hot water bath. The melted wax will flow through the burlap and the slum gum will stay in the bag. Beekeepers then press the burlap sacks to release the rest of the trapped wax from the slum gum. Once most of the wax is pressed out, the slum gum is discarded and the wax is molded into 30–50 lb (14–23 kg) blocks. The resulting wax is usually significantly darker than the cappings wax, ranging from light brown to almost black. If this wax were to be used for something such as candles, it would give off an unpleasant smell.

A lot of beekeepers turn this wax in to bee supply stores for credit toward “clean” wax or wax that has already been turned into foundation for inclusion into new frames. The bee supply stores ship this dark wax to commercial wax processing operations that have specialized equipment with carbon filters that remove the color from the wax. This process is far better than how wax was filtered in the past, when it was bleached using noxious chemicals to remove the color.

Most of the white wax available today is achieved naturally using carbon filters instead of chemicals. One drawback to the heavily refined, highly filtered wax is that the aroma and charm of beeswax (as well as many of its unique health advantages) actually come from the natural “contaminants,” including honey, propolis, and pollen. Bleaching or advanced refining of beeswax to remove its color and fragrance, yields a product that is a bit bland.

The relationship between bees and humans dates to the hunter–gatherer days when, armed with nothing but a long stick and a lot of resolve, men would knock down hives from trees and run, returning to the scene to harvest the honey when it was deemed safe. Later, humans discovered that using smoke from a burning stick helped to subdue the bees, making the job a bit easier. The usefulness of wax could very well have been discovered then.

Although some of this is conjecture on my part, there are cave paintings in Valencia Spain dating back about 8,000 years, that show two people collecting honey and honeycomb from a wild bee hive. They used baskets and gourds to transport the honeycomb, and a series of ropes to reach the hive.

We know more about the ancient Egyptians and their relationship with beeswax. They recognized the value of beeswax in mummification and used it for the embalming process. They also used the wax to seal the coffin and make it air tight, further preserving the body. The Egyptians preserved their writings on papyrus and on cave walls using beeswax, and these writings have remained unchanged for more than 2,000 years.

They even recognized the importance of beeswax in health, as prescriptions dating back to 1550 BC called for beeswax in various formulations. Ancient jewelers and artisans utilized the lost wax casting technique, which involves sculpting an object in beeswax, coating the object with clay, and then hardening the clay with heat. The heat melted the wax, leaving a clay shell that was a perfect replica of the beeswax sculpture. Molten metal was then poured into the clay shell and allowed to harden before the clay was removed. Egyptian priests also created the first voodoo dolls, using beeswax to create figures resembling their enemies before ritually destroying them.

Egyptians also loved perfumes and were reputed to have made perfumed unguents, the precursors to today’s solid perfumes. They incorporated beeswax, tallow, and various aromatic substances infused in oil, such as myrrh, henna, cinnamon, thyme, sage, anise, rose, and iris. The unguents weren’t sold as perfumes, but rather for a multitude of medical uses.

The Chinese also recognized the importance of beeswax. About 2,000 years ago, one of China’s most famous books on medicine, The Shennong Book of Herbs, praised beeswax for its beneficial influence on blood and energy systems and attributed beeswax with beauty enhancement and anti aging properties.

Beeswax was also recognized as an important ingredient in wound treatment and dietary supplement. Beeswax candles were already used by the ancient Egyptians, ancient Greeks, and in Rome and China.

Beeswax candles have been used in European churches since the beginning of Christianity. The Roman Catholic Church only allowed beeswax candles to be used in the church. Although this law is still valid today, candles are no longer required to be 100 percent beeswax.

By the eleventh century, however, churches were using huge amounts of candles. They were able to maintain the necessary amount of beeswax in part by having apiaries in every monastery and abbey. In the days of Marco Polo, beeswax was abundant and was often used to pay tribute to kings. But despite its abundance, beeswax candles were only in the hands of the rich; the poor had to suffer with tallow candles. Today, when technology seems to trump all else, it is encouraging to see that a product with such a rich history is just as vital in the twenty-first century as it was long ago.