Beeswax is one of the most magical substances on earth – at least that’s what we beekeepers will tell you. Beeswax comes from bees – honey bees in particular. How do bees make wax? Worker bees are responsible for this miracle. Beeswax is much more valuable per pound than honey. Does that surprise you?
Where Does Beeswax Come From?
Any local beekeeper who displays a booth of bee products will often have a few blocks of beeswax or beeswax candles. Everyone loves to touch the wax and take a sniff.
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The light honey aroma permeates the air when blocks of beeswax are nearby. It is hard to believe that honey bees actually make this wonderful substance.
Have you ever held a block of fresh beeswax? If you have, you know it is a joy from the hive. We love to look at it and smell it. It engages the senses of touch and smell.
What is Beeswax?
Beeswax is a natural wax that is produced from the glands of bees in the genus Apis. Amazingly, not every chemical compound in beeswax has been identified.
However, we do know that it has over 280 different compounds consisting of many acids, esters, polyesters and fatty acids. The exact composition of beeswax varies from one location to another.
As a beekeeper for many years, I know that rendered beeswax from my hives can vary in color from one year to another. Most years it is light yellow but sometimes rendered wax is bright yellow.
With a melting point of around 147 °F, beeswax can be gently melted to retain all of its aromas and desirable properties.
Beeswax that is heated for a long period or to a temperature over 185°F may darken and lose some of its golden color. When exposed to temperatures near 400°F beeswax can cause fire .
Why do Bees Make Wax?
Honey bees make wax to build their hives – at least the internal part which is where all bee life takes place.
Sheets of honeycomb fill the interior of a beehive containing thousands of individual wax cells. These cells will be used to hold baby bees, and food stores.
Most people assume that honey bees collect some type of material for nest building. Honey bees don’t collect nest materials – they produce them!
How is Beeswax Made?
Beeswax is made by worker honey bees inside the beehive. Usually these are young house bees who have not started foraging outside yet.
Bees around the age of 14 – 21 days are the best wax producers. Though in a pinch, older worker bees can make wax too – they just will not be as good at it.
Aside from plenty of young workers, the colony has a few more requirements for good wax production. There has to be a need for wax in the hive and a good flow of food coming in.
Worker Bees Have Special Wax Glands
When the colony needs beeswax, young adult bees gorge on honey. This boost of food is necessary to activate the wax glands.
Worker honey bees have special glands on the underside of their abdomen. There are 4 pairs of glands (for a total of 8) that can secrete wax.
When wax is first secreted it is in small pieces and is clear. We call these pieces of wax – wax scales. It takes many scales of wax to build sections of comb.
The honey bees actually hang in “chains” to construct the comb. We call this “festooning“. The bees grab the wax scales with their legs and use legs and mouth parts to shape the beeswax into comb.
The process of making wax requires honey bees to consume a lot of food. Hence, wax production is a resource heavy task for the honey bee colony.
For the beekeeper whose bees are not building comb, a lack of enough young bees or food resources are possible problems.
Why are Beeswax Cells in a Hexagon Shape?
A deep sized frame of honeycomb will have (on average) about 4500 individual wax cells per side. Each one is in a hexagon shape – why do bees build wax cells as a hexagon?
The shape is chosen for cell building because it allows the construction of the most cells in a given space with the smallest amount of beeswax.
Do all Honey Bees Make Wax?
All honey bee species have the capacity to make wax. However, worker bees are the only members of a colony that can do this important task.
Colors of Raw Beeswax in the Hive
When fresh wax is first made by bees, it is a beautiful pristine white. After spending time in the hive, the color of wax honeycomb changes.
Often progressing from a light yellow, to light brown and if left long enough you will even see black comb.
This is due to the tendency of honeycomb to absorb pollen oils, propolis stains and the dirt from thousands of little feet. This is why most beekeepers attempt to rotate out old comb to preserve a healthy colony atmosphere.
Other Uses for Beeswax in the Hive
When bees make wax, they use it for other purposes beyond comb building. They use and reuse any scraps of wax as much as possible.
Clean new wax is used to cap cells of ripe honey for storage. This protects the food stores until it is needed by the colony.
Wax bits can be reused for tasks such as capping brood cells. This is one reason brood caps are tan instead of white.
Beehives Making Wax Produce Less Honey!
Some reports say that bees must consume 8 pounds of honey to produce 1 pound of beeswax. That is al ot!
A colony that has to produce a lot of fresh beeswax each season produces less surplus honey. Therefore, if you find a honey jar containing comb it will be more expensive.
Beeswax Is A Valuable Hive Product
Honey is not the only product beekeepers can sell. Beekeepers have wax left over after the honey harvest.
This excess beeswax can be used in many crafts and projects. You can make soaps, beeswax balms and pure beeswax candles too.
Cleaned beeswax can vary in color from light to dark but if you are seeing snow white beeswax products- the wax has probably been bleached. Bleaching can result in a beautiful product but it does often remove the natural honey fragrance.
Final Thoughts on How Bees Make Wax
Beeswax is not one simple compound but a combination of many. Made by honey bees, beeswax is used to build the very structure of the hive.
Worker bees of the honey bee colony produce only as much as as is needed. We humans enjoy using beeswax too – it is popular item for many crafts, and projects.