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The Miracle of Beeswax (Part One)

It can take 10,000 bees three days to make a single pound of wax. [1]


Pound for pound, beeswax is far more valuable than honey. For beekeepers, wax is like gold, and it must be treated with great respect. Without it, the bees could not store food, raise brood, or undertake any of the processes necessary for keeping themselves alive. Beekeepers carefully preserve drawn comb from year to year to give their new colonies a great advantage over those that must build their homes from scratch. Over the next couple of posts, we will look at how wax is produced, why it is so valuable, and how it has been used at various points in history.

Only in the eighteenth century did scientists prove that the bees themselves made this miraculous substance instead of gathering it from nature. Indeed, wax making is the task of young bees, aged roughly twelve to twenty-one days—the age at which the wax glands on their abdomens fully mature. Over the course of eight to twelve hours, a house bee can secrete a substance that forms tiny scales that can be chewed and transformed into building materials. (Scientists have estimated that it takes between 500,000 and 800,000 (!!!) scales to make a single pound of wax. Practically speaking, a colony of 50,000 bees can produce about half a pound per day.)

Honey bees use wax to construct and repair their hives, to cap the cells of maturing brood, and to seal off honey when it has cured to their satisfaction. In order to get the honey out of the cells, the bees (or beekeepers!) need to break through the capping to recover the sweet reward. Beekeepers can remove the capped cells with a knife (heated or unheated), a fork-like device that punctures the wax, or a more sophisticated (read: expensive) machine that trims the frames more quickly. The result is a lot of leftover wax that can be repurposed for all sorts of applications, including making candles, lip balms, and soap.

In ancient times, wax was an extremely valuable commodity used for sealing letters, embalming bodies, and making medicines. The Romans used it as currency and collected giant sums as a tax. (In 181 B.C., Corsica paid Rome an annual tax of 100,000 lbs. of beeswax.) Centuries later, annual offerings were paid in England and France, and wax was tithed to the church, since beekeeping monasteries could not produce enough to serve their own needs. (Its importance to religious functions will be the subject of the next post.)

Mankind has long recognized the many uses of beeswax. While we may think of it is a luxury product, for the bees, it is the essence of life. They can fashion a single pound into 35,000 perfectly hex-sided cells capable of holding 22 lbs. of honey or providing the space necessary to raise the sisters and brothers who will sustain the colony. But this pristine white gold comes at a cost. It has been estimated that it takes the resources necessary to make eight pounds of honey to generate a single pound of wax. That's why new beekeepers who start with shiny, brand-new equipment can expect a greatly reduced harvest their first year. Once the comb is drawn, the bees can fill it without having to build it from scratch. (Imagine how long it would take to redecorate the bathroom if you had to rebuild the house first!)

So, the next time we use a beeswax product, we should remember the process by which the earnest little bees craft this precious substance. Their hard work offers countless rewards, for which we are all the richer. Just how much is their work appreciated? That will be the subject of the next post. Stay tuned.


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[1]. Much of the information cited in this post is derived from M.E.A. McNeil and Justin O. Schmidt, "Other Products of the Hive," in The Hive and the Honey Bee, rev. ed., ed. Joe M. Graham (Hamilton, Illinois: Dadant and Sons, 2015), 715-28; and Eva Crane, The World History of Beekeeping and Honey Hunting (New York: Routledge, 1999). Both books are highly recommended for beekeepers and for anyone who needs even more reasons to be impressed by these enchanting little bugs.


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