Production and Trade of Beeswax

Beeswax is a valuable product that can provide a worthwhile income in addition to honey. One kilogram of beeswax is worth more than one kilogram of honey. Unlike honey, beeswax is not a food product and is simpler to deal with. It does not require careful packaging which simplifies storage and transport. Beeswax is an income generating resource neglected in some areas of the tropics.

In Ethiopia and Angola, fixed comb beekeeping is the norm. They export significant beeswax quantities. Worldwide, many honey hunters and beekeepers do not know that beeswax can be sold or used for locally made, high-value products. Knowledge about the value of beeswax and how to process it is often lacking. Approximately, only half of the world’s production of beeswax gets to the market.

What is Beeswax

Beeswax is a creamy colored substance bees use to build the comb and forms the structure of their nest. Pure beeswax is white. The presence of pollen and other substances cause it to become yellow.

Beeswax is produced by all species of honeybees. It differs in chemical and physical properties from the wax of Apis mellifera, and is less acidic. Pure waxes from different species of stingless bees are also very different from the other types of beeswax. It is much darker in color – dark brown, and when it is warmed, it stretches without breaking. It is also sticky and much more difficult to break than beeswax from Apis mellifera.

The beeswax that is obtained can be made into three different types. These types are; yellow beeswax, white beeswax, and beeswax absolute. Yellow beeswax is the raw product. White beeswax is the yellow beeswax that has been bleached. Beeswax absolute is yellow beeswax that has been treated with alcohol.

Wax Production

Young worker honeybees make wax. It is secreted as a liquid from four pairs of wax glands on the ventral surface of the abdominal tergites (plates on the underside of a bee’s body). The liquid wax will spread over the surface of these plates and harden when it gets in contact with air to form a single wax scale on each tergite. This appears like a small flake of wax on the underside of the bee.

Worker honeybees produce eight scales of wax every 12 hours. The size of the wax glands depends upon the age of the worker: they are largest when the bee is about 12 days old and decline steadily after the eighteenth day until the end of her life. One million wax scales make one kilogram of wax.

Bees use the stiff hairs on their hind legs to remove the scales of wax and pass them on to the middle legs, and then to the mandibles (jaws) where wax is chewed and salivary secretions become mixed with the wax. When it is the right consistency, the new wax is used for comb construction or to seal honey cells. Bees are stimulated to produce wax when there is a surplus of honey to be stored and a lack of honeycomb in which to store it.

Bees consume eight kilograms of honey to produce one kilogram of wax. When a swarm of bees settles to establish a new nest, they start building beeswax combs. Bees need high temperatures to be able to produce beeswax and build with it. The production of the first comb takes place inside the congregation of bees, where the temperature is highest. The bees building a comb join together to make ‘garlands’ or ‘festoons’ – chains of bees. Hanging like this they secrete the wax.

When the beeswax is ready on a bee, she will move up the chain to the place where the building is going on. It will fetch one of the wax scales using her hind legs and bring it to her mouth to chew and mix with secretions, before using it for building. This is repeated until all eight wax scales are used. During the comb construction, bees knock it with their upper jaws to make it vibrate. This will help bees judge comb thickness and guide them to know if some wax has to be gnawed off, or if more has to be added.

Beekeeping for Wax Production

An important aspect of frame hive beekeeping is the recycling of empty combs (inside frames) to the hive extracting honey. This will maximize honey production and minimize the production of wax. Therefore, beekeeping that uses movable-frame hives (for example, Langstroth hives and Newton hives) will result in little wax harvest. The ratio of honey to beeswax production in these sort of hives is approximately 75:1.

Local style beekeeping with fixed-comb hives, or movable-comb (top-bar) hives results in greater yields of wax since the delicate honeycomb will be broken to extract honey, and not returned to the hive. The ratio of honey and wax production using fixed comb or movable-comb hives is about 10:1. For this reason, countries in Africa where fixed-comb beekeeping and honey hunting may be the norm produce significant amounts of beeswax, which provide a valuable export crop. In some situations, wax rather than honey can be the most valued product of beekeeping.

When there is good honey-flow i.e. plenty of nectar coming into the hive, it stimulates bees to make wax and build combs to hold the nectar. During dearth periods beeswax production stops: when necessary, bees will recycle wax from existing comb to seal their honey and brood cells. Wax-producing bees need plenty of food: as mentioned above, bees consume around eight kilograms of honey to produce one kilogram of beeswax. All ages of worker bees produce beeswax and build combs after they swarm from an old colony. The young bees have to start wax production sooner than they would in an established colony, and the older bees have to resume beeswax production.

Beeswax Quality

Newly produced wax is clear white, but after manipulation by the bees, it turns pale yellow. A new honeycomb is nearly white and it will retain this colour if its only use is to store honey. Using the comb for brood will make it turn dark after long periods. This is due to the larvae’s cocoons spun inside the cell before pupation. Some larvae excrement will also be in the cells.

The colour of beeswax (shades of yellow, orange and red through to brown) is due to the presence of various substances, especially pollen. The difference in color has no significance in regard to beeswax quality. However, light coloured wax is of more value than dark coloured wax. If wax is dark because it has been over-heated then its value is much lower. The finest wax is from cappings. i.e. the wax seal bees use to cover ripe honeycombs. This fresh ‘virgin wax’ is pure and white coloured.

Bleaching wax was common in the past (using bleaches such as sulphuric acid or hydrogen peroxide). This practice is now unnecessary and damaging to the natural wax. Pure wax has a good aroma. A broken wax block will show a grainy surface. That is not the case if it has been adulterated with paraffin, fat or other oil. When you chew pure wax, it will not stick to the teeth, and when rolled between fingers it will soften and not stick. Beeswax will become more transparent and slightly greasy to the touch when mixed with paraffin.

Beeswax Composition and Properties

Wax is a very stable substance, and its properties change little over time. It is resistant to hydrolysis and natural oxidization and is insoluble in water. Wax is a complex material consisting of many different substances. Predominantly it contains esters of higher fatty acids and alcohols, pigments mostly from pollen, propolis, and minute traces of bee material. Wax is solid at room temperature, brittle at temperatures below 18 °C, and soft and pliable at around 35 to 40 °C, with a melting point of 64.5 °C.

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