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 this simplifies storage and transport. Beeswax is an income generating resource neglected in some areas of the tropics.

In Ethiopia and Angola where fixed comb beekeeping is the norm, they export significant beeswax quantities, while in others the trade is neglected and beeswax is thrown away. 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. It is impossible to give statistics, but maybe only half of the world’s production of beeswax comes on to the market, with the rest being thrown away and lost.

What is Beeswax

Beeswax is the creamy colored substance used by bees to build the comb that forms the structure of their nest. Very pure beeswax is white, but 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 of beeswax. 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

Wax is made by young worker honeybees. 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.

A worker honeybee can 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. About one million wax scales are needed to 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 used 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.

Eight kilograms of honey are consumed by bees 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 the 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 after the extraction of honey, thus maximizing honey production and minimizing the production of wax. Therefore, beekeeping that uses movable-frame hives (for example, Langstroth hives and Newton hives) results in the harvesting of relatively little beeswax. Using these sorts of hives, the ratio of honey to beeswax production is approximately 75:1.

Beekeeping using local style, fixed-comb hives, or movable-comb (top-bar) hives results in greater yields of beeswax since the delicate honeycomb is broken to enable the extraction of honey, and cannot be 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 for some of these countries. 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, bees are stimulated to make wax to build comb 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. The wax-producing bees need plenty of food: as mentioned above, bees consume around eight kilograms of honey to produce one kilogram of beeswax. When the bees swarm from an old colony and have to build new combs, the wax production and building is undertaken by all ages of worker bees. 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 it is only used to store honey. If the comb is used for brood, it will turn darker the longer it is used. This is due to the larvae’s cocoons spun inside the cell before pupation. Some excrement from the larvae is also sealed in the cells. The coloration of beeswax (shades of yellow, orange and red through to brown) is due to the presence of various substances, especially pollen. This difference in color is of no significance as far as the quality of the wax is concerned, but subjectively light coloured wax is more highly valued 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.

In the past, it was common to bleach wax (using bleaches such as sulphuric acid or hydrogen peroxide), but this practice is now considered 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 and propolis, as well as minute traces of bee material. It is solid at room temperature, becomes brittle once the temperature drops below 18 °C and quickly becomes soft and pliable at around 35 to 40 °C, with a melting point of 64.5 °C.