An Introduction to Beeswax
If you have ever wondered where the saying “mind your own beeswax” comes from, it is a rather unusual story that dates back to the 18th century. At this time, small pox left scars and disfiguration on the faces of those who contracted the disease; in turn, women would apply beeswax to remedy this problem and smooth their complexion. The story goes that if someone got too close, or was staring for a long period of time, a woman might retort that they should in fact “mind their own beeswax” instead of staring at hers!
This might seem an unusual way to introduce a bee’s less popular by-product (second to honey of course), but it gives us some indication of the transformative nature of this material. Beeswax (cera alba) is a natural wax produced by honey bees. Chemically, beeswax comprises mainly of esters, fatty acids and long-chain alcohols. It is made in the eight wax-producing glands on the abdomen of female worker bees, and forms “scales” when excreted; it is initially glass-like and colourless but becomes opaque once it sets. The wax itself becomes more yellow of brown with the incorporation of pollen oils and propolis. Once excreted, it is collected by workers to form cell structures in the hive for honey storage and larval and pupal protection. With each scale averaging 3mm, it takes a massive 1100 to make just one gram of wax!
For beekeepers, this wax is a useful substance that can be made into a variety of products and materials. When extracting the honey from the hive, beekeepers cut the wax caps from each honeycomb cell with a special “uncapping” knife. As mentioned, the wax differs in colour depending upon the flowers the workers have been feeding on; the area of comb also plays a role, with wax from the “brood comb”, where larvae and pupae are growing, being darker than in other areas. Due to these impurities, the wax must be rendered before it can be used. This is done through a process of heating in water.
Beeswax has many uses. Historically, beeswax was one of the first plastics, and remnants have been found in Viking ships, Egyptian tombs and Roman ruins! It was used to make candles, in cosmetics, as a model-making material, for writing tablets, in encaustic painting, for sealing letters, as a lubricant for bullets, in batik fabric painting and as a mouthpiece on didgeridoos. In modern time, it still has long-standing applications in human food and flavouring, used frequently as a glazing agent, as a sweetener, and as a light source. It is also a valuable ingredient in cosmetics, with many natural beauty products using its potentials, and in the preservation of perishables.