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What Is Beeswax

Honeybees Create Beeswax

Scientifically speaking, beeswax is a natural substance secreted by worker honey bees (female honey bees) from glands on the underside of their abdomens. This secreted beeswax is known as a beeswax scale. A single beeswax scale is roughly 3 millimeters in diameter and just 1/10th of a millimeter in thickness; it takes roughly 1000 - 2000 of these scales to make just a single gram of beeswax.

That means it takes an enormous 500,000 to 1,000,000 scales to make a single pound of beeswax, the same amount of beeswax used in a 3" x 4" beeswax pillar candle! Some reports mention it can even take up to 2,000,000 scales to make a pound of beeswax; this would mean the scales are a bit smaller than average.

Beeswax Is Born Translucent

In its most pure natural form beeswax is actually white, or translucent, depending on the thickness of the beeswax scales. This wax thickness is generally relative to the age of the worker bee, younger and older bees tend to have thinner scales, while a perfect middle aged worker bee has the most efficient and thicker beeswax scale.

Before the wax secretion can take place the hive temperature needs to be around 97 degrees Fahrenheit. Most wax production in the US occurs from April to June because the queens are laying more eggs to keep the colony strong, and because nectar flow, which eventually becomes honey, is high and the bees need storage space.

A Closer Look At The Beeswax Scale

beeswax scales

The Honeybee Of Commerce

While there are 4 species of honey bees around the world, it is generally the species known as Apis mellifera that produces most of the beeswax humans use today. Some refer to this species as the honey bee of commerce.

The 3 other species of honey bees produce small amounts of honey and wax also, but are less easy to work with and often not used in most instances. Other types of bees (including bumble bees) produce wax too, though it is in such minute quantities as to be generally unusable for humans to harvest.

Beeswax Scale

Wax scales are formed on the anterior part of each of the last four normal sternites (sternal plates), found on segments 4, 5, 6, and 7 of the abdomen of the worker honey bee. Eight wax glands are located over these sternal plates of the abdomen (4 on each side). The wax is secreted as a liquid and solidifies into scales upon contact with the plates.

It Takes Honey To Make Beeswax

Bees feed on their honey in order to produce beeswax scales. Studies varies slightly, but on average it takes the consumption of roughly a ratio of eight to ten parts honey to make one part beeswax. While secreting the wax bees do no other work in the hive. Worker honey bees use this secreted wax to assemble their elegantly designed honeycomb, the image most people conjure when they think of bees and honey.

The honeycomb shape (6 sided) is structurally stronger than a square or circle shape. The beeswax honeycomb is a most vital foundation for all bee colonies; this honeycomb is used by the honey bees to store their young (larvae), as well as an efficient storage area for their honey and pollen.

Golden Yellow Beeswax

The beeswax most people are familiar with is a light golden yellow color. This beautiful color is achieved from the pollen and propolis that naturally stain the beeswax. If excessive amounts of pollen oils and propolis are present in the beeswax it can even become a dark brown.

When you see white beeswax candles the pollen and propolis has been removed from the beeswax. White beeswax is achieved either naturally or with the use of chemicals (bleach or hydrogen peroxide are common methods). Using chemicals to "bleach" beeswax is common for cosmetic applications, though most reputable beeswax candle manufactures use non-chemical methods to remove pollen and propolis to acquire a white beeswax.

Physical Characteristics of Beeswax

raw beeswax

Beeswax Is Unique

Beeswax is a special material, something man is incapable of replicating. It is somewhat brittle at low temperatures, and soft and malleable at warmer temperatures. It starts to become soft around 90 to 95 degrees Fahrenheit; its melting point is between 143 to 150 degrees Fahrenheit.

Beeswax is a very stable material. Researchers and archaeologists have discovered beeswax thousands of years old (in pyramids for example) and pointed out very little deterioration, being nearly similar to beeswax that is produced today. Beeswax is insoluble in water, in fact it's been brought up from ship wrecks after years under salt water and is still in good condition.

A harmless whitish substance known as bloom will first start appear on beeswax over time, usually a few weeks to a few months. Bloom will continue to increase on beeswax (however slightly) as years pass if left untouched. Many people consider bloom to be attractive, with its frosty white appearance.

Chemical Makeup of Beeswax

Solid Beeswax Votive Candles

Viewed chemically, beeswax is essentially a combination of many long chain molecules. Beeswax consists of more than 300 components, though surprisingly pure beeswax is made of only three elements: carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen (all of which are available from the honey that bees consume).

The chemical formula of beeswax is: C15 H31 CO2 C30 H61

Out of these 300 components about 50 of them contribute to the wonderful honey scent so many people enjoy. Unfortunately the exact chemical composition of beeswax is not fully known, partially due to trade secrecy and lack of analytical testing in the field.

The following chart, composition of beeswax, is from a paper by Tulloch:

Constituent Fractions Number of Components in Fractions
Percent Major * Minor
Hydrocarbons 14 10 66
Monoesters 35 10 10
Diesters 14 6 24
Triesters 3 5 20
Hydroxy Monoesters 4 6 20
Hydroxy Polyesters 8 5 20
Acid Esters 1 7 20
Acid Polyesters 2 5 20
Free Acids 12 8 10
Free Alcohols 1 5 ?
Unknown 6 7 ?
Totals 100 74 210
* Major components are those forming more than one percent of the fraction; for minor components (forming less than one percent) only estimated numbers are given.