Beeswax is the substance bees produce to build their honeycombs. It also has many qualities that have been appreciated by people since ancient history, according to beekeeping books. The melting point of beeswax is at around 148 degrees Fahrenheit. There is a large market for beeswax, making it a substantial income source for beekeepers.
While a wide range of books on beekeeping can provide a lot of useful information on beekeeping, there is nothing that could compare to the hands-on experience the beekeeper gains while caring for his or her own honey bee colonies. The personal experience is priceless, especially because each area has different climate and surrounding characteristics.
There are two main reasons a person would choose to become a professional beekeeper, and these are financial gain and a passion for research on the behavior and life cycles of honey bees. Let’s take a closer look at beeswax and the close relationship it has with the financial gain of the beekeeper.
Beeswax is a valuable product, that more often than not, will provide a substantial income in addition to honey. One pound of beeswax is usually worth more money than one pound of honey. Since beeswax is not a food product, the way honey is, the whole process of storing and transporting it is simplified by far.
Although wax is such a valuable by-product, because of lack of knowledge, most of the world’s beeswax production gets lost or thrown away. This is a huge loss for the wax market, mostly because this is a widely used product in many industries. However, the wax that does make it to the market is evaluated at a very good price, making it a good income source for the beekeeper.
What is beeswax?
Beeswax is the substance produced and used by bees to make honeycombs. Honey bees use these honeycombs to store the honey they have produced over the summer. Very pure wax is white, but because bees mix it with pollen, it becomes yellow in color. Adult worker bees produce wax scales out of special glands located on their abdomen.
Soon after the small wax scales are produced, the bees will start chewing them, this way mixing them with pollen, until they reach a certain texture. When the wax is moldable in the desired shape, the worker bees will start building the combs with it. A certain temperature is needed within the hive for this whole process to take place, between 91 and 97 degrees Fahrenheit.
Beeswax is produced by all honey bee species. The wax that is produced by Asian honey bee species is known as “Ghedda Wax” and it differs in both chemical and physical properties from wax made by Apis mellifera. It also is less acidic than wax produced by other honey bee species. Wax produced by bumblebees is very different than the wax of honey bees.
Furthermore, wax produced by stingless bees is much darker in color, close to brown, and when it is warmed, this type of wax stretches without breaking. It is also much stickier than that of Apis mellifera, making it much harder to break. Each bee species has adapted the type of wax they produce to their environmental surroundings, making it suitable for the purpose it has.
The freshly produced wax is glass-clear and colorless. When bees start making it a suitable building material, the wax will turn opaque. Soon after, the beeswax will turn light yellow because bees mix it with pollen and other substances while manipulating it. The color of the wax can go from white, for fresh wax, to dark brown, also depending on the bee species.
When the honeycomb is used for honey storing only, the wax it’s made of will become light yellow in color. However, when the comb is used for brood, the wax color will get darker as time passes, mainly because some larvae feces get sealed in the wax, as well as the larvae’s cocoon spun inside de comb cells before pupation.
The color of the wax does not usually indicate higher or lower wax quality. However, the lighter colored wax is valued higher than darker colored wax. There is one big exception to the rule here, and that is dark colored wax due to overheating. This type of wax lost some of its qualities, and it will definitely be valued a lot lower than crude wax.
The main quality issues are concerning contamination of the wax with chemical substances used to control various diseases within the hive, as well as its authenticity of origin. The contamination of beeswax can be minimized by avoiding the use of synthetic chemicals in beekeeping, especially for the prevention of bee mites and other parasites.
Pure wax has a pleasant aroma and when a wax block is broken, it shows a grainy surface. This is no longer the case with wax that has been adulterated with paraffin oil, fat or other oils. Pure wax will not stick to the fingers when rolled in the hand, but it will become softer in texture. The wax that had paraffin oil added to it will feel greasier when rolled between the fingers.
Composition and properties of beeswax
Beeswax is one of the most stable substances known to mankind, as its properties remain close to unchanged over time. It is insoluble in water, it will not oxidate nor undergo hydrolyzation processes. Beeswax is a complex material, consisting of many substances, predominantly of esters of higher fatty acids, alcohols, and pigments, mostly from pollen and nectar.
Wax is solid at room temperature and it becomes softer and pliable at around 100 F, with a melting point of 148F. If the temperature drops lower than 64F, then the beeswax becomes brittle. This is one of the reasons it is so important for the bees to have an adequate temperature inside the hive, to keep the wax maneuverable, but not melting.
How to melt beeswax
Beeswax can be dangerous when hot, therefore, extra precautions are to be taken when melting beeswax. One of them is slowly melting it using gentle heat to avoid the associated risks. Double boilers are usually used when melting the beeswax, but you can also use a slow cooker, or even solar energy on a hot summer day.
Make sure never to expose the wax directly to the heat source, as it may cause it to melt unevenly, and also to lose some of its important properties. Keep in mind that wax does not actually boil, so if it passes its boiling point, it will change color and start to give out fumes. Properly melting wax is very important to keep its properties intact.
When choosing to melt wax in a water bath, keep in mind that the wax does not need to be in a separate container since it does not mix with water. The best water to use when melting wax is clean, rainwater. Using strong water, that contains lime, may lead to a saponification process of the beeswax. It definitely is to be avoided as it will ruin your wax.
Because beeswax is slightly acidic, it will react with aluminum, brass, copper, or iron holders, causing them to stain. The best materials to use when melting wax are enamel, plastic, stainless steel or nickel. This aspect is very important to keep the integrity of the wax you want to work with, especially if it is used for medicinal purposes.
Regardless of the method you choose when melting wax, keep in mind that it will solidify as soon as it cools down. Therefore, make sure you pour it in the desired molds as soon as you can, to avoid having to melt it all over again. Moreover, the melted wax should be allowed to cool down as slowly as possible to maintain all of its natural properties.