How Honey Bees Make Wax
Pollination, honey production, etc. – We know so many honey bee facts. Yet, our noble honey bee has another claim to fame and it is rather miraculous. Let’s explore how bees make wax!
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.
A 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 quick sniff.
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.
Yes it is true, honey bees really do make beeswax. Aren’t they wonderful ?
Bees have a good reason to put so much energy into wax production. They use it to build their home.
Why Bees Make Wax
How honey bees produce wax is one of the first things new beekeepers learn. Wax production is very important to the the vitality of the hive.
Most people assume that honey bees collected some type of material for nest building.
The story of how bees make wax is much different than that of birds collecting sticks for nests. Honey bees don’t collect nest materials – they produce them!
Honey Bee Wax Glands
Honey bees produces wax from their own bodies. The wax scales are then formed into the actual honeycomb structure of the hive.
Inside thousands of honeycomb cells, worker bees store food and tend to brood – or baby bees.
During the cold of Winter, some bees enter empty cells as the bees cluster together for warmth.
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.
How the Worker Bee Makes Wax
When we say that honey bees make wax, mean they produce wax. Beeswax comes from the “under-bellies” of bees. Ok, technically the process is a bit more involved.
Female honey bees – called Worker Bees – have special glands on the underside of their abdomen. These wax glands produce clear scales of beeswax.
I got a shot of one of my worker honey bees with wax scales showing on her underside. I was so impressed. You Go Girl !
Do all Honey Bees Make Wax?
No, only worker bees produce wax. All worker bees are females and have wax glands.
Young adults are the best wax producers. Wax production is best in adults around 14 – 18 days old. However, the older foraging workers can produce wax when needed.
When the colony needs beeswax, young adult bees gorge on honey. This boost of food is necessary to activate the wax glands. The wax glands produce clear “scales” of beeswax.
The soft wax scales are “chewed” and shaped into the beautiful wax honeycomb that we associate with honey bees.
The honey bees actually hang in “chains” to construct the comb. We call this “festooning”.
Over time, the white wax will absorb the colors and aroma of honey & pollen. This is why beeswax in the hive darkens over time.
Beeswax in the Hive
When bees make wax, they are investing a lot of energy and time into the project. Therefore, they use and reuse any scraps of wax as much as possible.
Clean new wax is used to cap cell of honey in storage. This protects the food stores until it is needed by the colony.
Beeswax acts much like a sponge and can absorb many substances inside the hive.
Unfortunately, beeswax will also absorb many of the chemicals used by beekeepers to fight honey bee pests.
A good beekeeping management plan involves rotating out old frames of comb over time.
Letting the bees make beeswax comb on new foundation, cuts down on accumulating contaminants in the hive.
Beehives Making Wax Produce Less Honey!
It’s important to realize the effort that honey bees have to expend to produce wax.
Some reports say that bees must consume 8 pounds of honey to produce 1 pound of beeswax. That is over 3 quarts of honey!
A colony that has to produce a lot of fresh beeswax each season produces less surplus honey.
Beeswax production is an expensive undertaking for the bee colony. Therefore, if you find a honey jar containing comb it will be more expensive.
The bees and the beekeeper had to give up a lot of honey for that beeswax.
This effort also explains why beekeepers should keep new colonies well fed . Drawing comb requires a constant source of abundant food coming into the hive.
How to Buy Pure Beeswax?
It is best to purchase beeswax from your local beekeeper. This is the best chance of avoiding large amounts of chemical residues in the wax.
Not everyone is lucky enough to have a local supply. I sell small bars in my Etsy store.
If you need larger quantities, Amazon is a good place to shop. Beeswax is often mixed with paraffin to stretch the product further. Read labels carefully and purchase from reputable sources.
Beeswax Is A Valuable Hive Product
Honey is not the only product beekeepers can sell. Extra beeswax is one of the best benefits of beekeeping.
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.
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.
Can You Eat Beeswax?
Even though pure beeswax is edible, we have no firm data on any nutritional value.
The wax monoesters that make up the wax are poorly digested in the gut of humans and other mammals.
However, the experience of eating honeycomb filled with fresh honey is a delight.
After removing the delicious honey, beeswax has been used for many human purposes over thousands of years.
Crafting with Beeswax
Beeswax is a tough wax made up of many different compounds. We make use of it’s special properties. It is commonly melted down to be used in many ways.
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 .
Bees are not the only ones that love beeswax. We use it too !
Have fun, be safe