What is Beeswax?
Beeswax is a natural wax produced in the bee hive of honey bees of the genus Apis. It is mainly esters of fatty acids and various long chain alcohols. Typically, for a honey bee keeper, 10 pounds of honey yields 1 pound of wax. Or about 4Kg of honey should yield roughly 400g of beeswax.
Anatomy and production
Worker bees (the females) have eight wax-producing mirror glands on the inner sides of the sternites (the ventral shield or plate of each segment of the body) on abdominal segments 4 to 7. The size of these wax glands depends on the age of the worker and after daily flights begin these glands gradually atrophy. The new wax scales are initially glass-clear and colorless (see illustration), becoming opaque after mastication by the worker bee. The wax of honeycomb is nearly white, but becomes progressively more yellow or brown by incorporation of pollen oils and propolis. The wax scales are about 3 millimetres (0.12 in) across and 0.1 millimetres (0.0039 in) thick, and about 1100 are required to make a gram of wax.
Honey bees use the beeswax to build honeycomb cells in which their young are raised and honey and pollen are stored. For the wax-making bees to secrete wax, the ambient temperature in the hive has to be 33 to 36 °C (91 to 97 °F). To produce their wax, bees must consume about eight times as much honey by mass. It is estimated that bees fly 150,000 miles, roughly six times around the earth, to yield one pound of beeswax (530,000 km/kg).
When beekeepers extract the honey, they cut off the wax caps from each honeycomb cell with an uncapping knife or machine. Its colour varies from nearly white to brownish, but most often a shade of yellow, depending on purity and the type of flowers gathered by the bees. Wax from the brood comb of the honey bee hive tends to be darker than wax from the honeycomb. Impurities accumulate more quickly in the brood comb. Due to the impurities, the wax has to be rendered before further use. The leftovers are called slumgum.
The wax may further be clarified by heating in water and may then be used for candles or as a lubricant for drawers and windows or as a wood polish. As with petroleum waxes, it may be softened by dilution with vegetable oil to make it more workable at room temperature.
Beeswax is a tough wax formed from a mixture of several compounds
An approximate chemical formula for beeswax is C15H31COOC30H61. Its main components are palmitate, palmitoleate, hydroxypalmitate and oleate esters of long-chain (30-32 carbons) aliphatic alcohols, with the ratio of triacontanylpalmitate CH3(CH2)29O-CO-(CH2)14CH3 to cerotic acid CH3(CH2)24COOH, the two principal components, being 6:1. Beeswax can be classified generally into European and Oriental types. The ratio of saponification value is lower (3-5) for European beeswax, and higher (8-9) for Oriental types.
Beeswax has a high melting point range, of 62 to 64 °C (144 to 147 °F). If beeswax is heated above 85 °C (185 °F) discoloration occurs. The flash point of beeswax is 204.4 °C (399.9 °F). Density at 15 °C is 0.958 to 0.970 g/cm³.
Uses as a product
Beeswax candles and figures
- Beeswax is mainly used to make honeycomb foundation for reuse by the bees.
- Purified and bleached beeswax is used in the production of food, cosmetics, and pharmaceuticals:
- Beeswax is used as a coating for cheese, to protect the food as it ages. As a food additive, beeswax is known as E901 (glazing agent).
- As a skin care product, a German study found beeswax to be superior to similar "barrier creams" (usually mineral oil based creams, such as petroleum jelly), when used according to its protocol.
- Beeswax is an ingredient in moustache wax, as well as hair pomades.
- Beeswax is an ingredient in surgical bone wax.
- Beeswax candles are preferred in churches because they burn cleanly, with little or no wax dripping down the sides and little visible smoke. Beeswax is also prescribed as the material (or at least a significant part of the material) for the Paschal candle ("Easter Candle") and is recommended for other candles used in the liturgy of the Roman Catholic Church.
- Beeswax is used commercially to make fine candles.
- Although only about 10,000 tons are produced annually, a variety of niche uses exist:
- As a component of Shoe polish
- As a component of Furniture polish, dissolved in turpentine, sometimes blended with linseed or tung oil
- As a component of modelling waxes.
- As a blended with pine rosin, beeswax serves as an adhesive to attach reed plates to the structure inside a squeezebox.
- Used to make Cutler's resin.
- Used in Eastern Europe in egg decoration. It is used for writing on batik eggs (as in pysanky) and for making beaded eggs.
- Formerly used in the manufacturing of the cylinders used by the earliest phonographs.
- Used by percussionists to make a surface on tambourines for thumb rolls.
- Beeswax was ancient man's first plastic, and for thousands of years has been used as a modeling material, to create sculpture and jewelry molds for use in the lost-wax casting process, or cire perdue. Lost-wax casting of metals involved coating of a wax model with plaster, melting the wax out of the resulting mould and filling the space with molten metal. The technique is still used today by jewellers, goldsmiths and sculptors, in dentistry and even in the industrial manufacture of complex components by investment casting of metals.
- Wax tablets were used for a variety of writing purposes, from taking down students' or secretaries' notes to recording business accounts.
- Traces of beeswax were found in the paintings in the Lascaux cave.
- Traces of beeswax were found in Egyptian mummies.
Egyptians used beeswax in shipbuilding.
- In the Roman period, beeswax was used as waterproofing agent for painted walls and as a medium for the Fayum mummy portraits.
- Nations subjugated by Rome sometimes paid tribute or taxes in beeswax.
- In the Middle Ages beeswax was considered valuable enough to become a form of currency.
- Used in bow making
- Used to strengthen and preserve sewing thread.
- As a component of sealing wax
- Beeswax is the traditional material from which to make didgeridoo mouthpieces and the frets on the Philippine kutiyapi, a type of boat lute.
- Beeswax has been used for hundreds of years as a sealant or lubricant for bullets in cap and ball and firearms that use black powder. It is often mixed with other ingredients such as olive oil (sweet oil) and sometimes paraffin. Beeswax was used to stabilize the military explosive Torpex before being replaced by a petroleum-based product.