How Is Beeswax Made?
It’s easy to forget just how much we get from bees. The “bee apocalypse” has made more people aware of their role in pollination and how they’re responsible for around 80 percent of our food. Not to mention we harvest their honey, which is one of the healthiest (and tastiest) foods we can enjoy.
Have you ever thought about how significant beeswax is to us, though? More importantly, don’t you think it’s just a little odd that we get wax from insects? The more I’ve thought about it, the stranger it’s become. How do bees even make wax in the first place? Here’s what we know.
How Is Beeswax Produced?
Beeswax is produced by worker bees, and its production has everything to do with their biology. For starters, worker bees have eight wax-producing glands, that are found in pairs just beneath their abdomen. The size of their glands is determined by the worker’s age, and their wax-producing ability deteriorates, the older they get.
For this reason, wax is mostly produced by younger bees. When workers are between 12 and 18 days old, their wax glands mature and become their most active. These glands process honey and convert its sugars into wax.
We’re not certain how much honey a bee has to eat to produce wax, but it’s been estimated that in a bee’s lifetime, she will eat around eight pounds of honey, and produce just under a pound of wax.
Initially, wax is a colorless and transparent liquid. This fresh, clear wax is secreted through a bee’s pores. It only takes on its hardened consistency when it reacts to the air. Likewise, it gets it identifying color after being mixed with pollen or propolis.
Once the wax hardens onto their abdomens, worker bees chew it until it’s soft enough to mold.
It’s been noted that beeswax production is influenced by various factors, including:
- How much nectar needs to be stored
- The size of the colony and the presence of a queen
- Pollen density in the area
Bees produce the most (and best) wax in warmer temperatures. Only colonies with a queen will produce wax.
Why Do Bees Make Wax?
Most commonly, bees produce wax so that they can build with it. On the outside, bee nests aren’t much to look at. They usually appear as a clumpy, ill-formed mess that melted on whichever surface it’s built onto.
On the inside, however, honey bee nests are one of the marvels of this world. This short video gives you a good look.
Bees use the wax that they produce to construct honeycombs—intricate and incredibly precise adjoining hexagonal cells. These cells are used for three main purposes: to store nectar and honey, to store pollen, and to house brood (eggs and larvae).
It’s still not entirely understood how bees design them to such precision. It has, however, been hypothesized that bees choose hexagons instinctually, to best conserve space and wax.
Do Bees Eat Wax?
Beeswax mostly consists of fatty acids and is considered a healthy diet choice for us. What about the bees that make it, though? When we take their honeycomb, are we taking their food?
Don’t worry, you’re not—but you are if you take their honey!
Bees do not eat wax. They use it to build and that’s all. That said, many a beekeeper has been confused by their bees apparently eating their own honeycomb.
It’s all a misunderstanding though. Bees seem to eat wax (often to the point that they chew holes in their hives) when they recycle honeycomb. Sometimes bees will reuse scraps of wax, or rebuild wax they’ve already laid out.
This is just another means of energy and wax conservation, but they aren’t digesting it. They are simply chewing on the wax to soften it once again, probably to mold it into something new.
Which Bees Make Wax?
Not all bees make wax, but it’s also a misconception that only western honeybees do. This is most likely due to wax being produced by the family of bees called Apidae.
Honeybees (Apis mellifera) are the most well-known in this group, but it includes bumblebees, stingless bees, carpenter bees, and orchid bees too.
There are at least 5,700 types of Apidae; a fair portion of the 20,000 types of bee in total. That means that almost a quarter of all bees produce wax, far more than just honey bees.
Still, there are some rules that go with wax production. Only the (female) worker bees produce wax, and only in colonies that have a queen. In this group, workers only produce wax when their glands are at their peak. Once they pass their prime, their wax glands atrophy.
Do Only Bees Make Wax?
Beeswax is most certainly the most common (and most popular) animal wax we can find, but there are other insects and creatures that produce wax too. This includes wax scale insects, sheep (lanolin), lac bugs, and even sperm whales.
Beeswax is a favorite because it’s relatively easy to harvest and it has nutritional value to us. Speaking of which…
What Is Beeswax Used For?
I’ve covered what bees use wax for, but what about us? Beeswax has been a staple in humanity for centuries now, and you might be surprised at how many uses it has.
The most well-known use for beeswax is in candle-making. Beeswax candles are said to be superior to other wax candles, with many convinced that it burns brighter and longer than others. I couldn’t find any evidence to support this, though.
Beeswax, or byproducts of it, is also used in the making of:
- Binders and stabilizers in paint
- Surgeries (as bone wax, used to control bleeding)
- Furniture polish
- Modeling waxes
- Surfboard waxes
- Cutler’s resin (to stick handles on to knives and cutlery)
- Tambourines (thumb rolls)
- Sealing wax
- Cheese coatings
- Food additives
- Glazing agents
- Chewing gum
- Lip balms and lip gloss
- Lotions and moisturizers
- Makeup (including eye shadow, eyeliner, and blush)
- Hair care products (especially for dreadlock maintenance)
- Leather waterproofing
- Waxed paper
- Lithographic inks
- Salves and ointments
- Medicines and anti-inflammatories
- Fabric dyes
- Dental floss
… and that’s the short version.
Is Using Beeswax Ethical?
This is entirely up to you to decide. Beeswax is an animal product, so it’s unsuitable for vegans to use or consume.
Some animal activists will argue that harvesting beeswax is cruel toward bees; reasons being that they work hard for it, and we have no place helping ourselves to it. Others, like PETA, are more vocal about the horrors of commercial bee farms, wherein bees are mistreated to produce more honey and wax.
But there is another side to this story. Small or local beekeepers typically help and protect bees, and take extra care not to harm the bees that we harvest our honey and wax from.
An example of this is Hillary Kearney, a beekeeper, who stated in an interview that the problem is with commercial bee farms. In cases like hers, beekeepers actually help bees, by maintaining their colonies and hives.
I would recommend taking what you hear with a grain of salt. Not every beekeeper is a monster, and not every animal activist is a saint. Sometimes they miss the bigger picture. Without beekeepers, the bee crisis would be a lot worse than it already is.
Beeswax is a wonderful, useful, and healthy product that humans have been harvesting for hundreds, perhaps even thousands of years. More often than not, local beekeepers access it tactfully and ethically, but larger corporations can be a problem.
Bees use wax to build their homes, store their food, and house their eggs and larvae. It’s a fascinating process that we still don’t fully understand. Isn’t it amazing, how something so small can be so skilled and intelligent?