Using this valuable honey bee product
~James E. Tew
It is late November, cold and raining. The yard is loudly quiet. No bees flying, no birds singing, no noisy insects – just quiet, cold rain. What to do? Reflect about last year or anticipate next year? As I stood in the yard, I decided to do some of both. (I did note that we were able to stop the bee shack roof from leaking by applying caulking last Summer – but it still is in need of painting.) In a friendly way, the Winter beeyard is a lonely, reflective place.
The honey – both extracted and comb – has been processed and is history. I got a decent crop – not great. For the most part, the wax crop has been rendered and is in holding as rough-rendered cakes. Now that things are so quiet with little beeyard work to do, it seems appropriate to turn my energies back to the wax crop.
Beeswax is produced as a highly vaporous liquid by four pairs of glands on the bees’ bottom side. The liquid wax flows onto eight “mirrors” or shiny plates where it rapidly hardens into small, white flakes. Strangely, bees often drop these flakes where they can be seen accumulating on the bottom board. They are not retrieved. These discarded wax scales are an indicator that a nectar flow is underway. The wax-secreting bee uses a long spine on her middle leg to pass the crumbly flake to the front legs where it is chewed, enzymes added to harden it a bit, and then – using jaws that look like a couple of cement workers’ trowels, it is molded in the familiar new comb that beekeepers have seen in past Spring seasons.
Wax is produced only when storage comb is needed. That is usually during spring and early summer in most parts of the USA. Since it takes about eight pounds of honey to produce one pound of wax, it is a building material that bees do not produce unless it is needed. When a hive becomes packed with honey and nectar, returning field bees, loaded with nectar have no place to unload. During these times, even the house bees’ internal storage structure (the crop) is filled with nectar. Bees that are of the right age, forced to hold surplus nectar, will involuntarily secrete wax. The beekeeper cannot make bees secrete wax – short of feeding heavy sugar syrup.
At this point in the crowded hive, the bees do one of three things:
- If the hive is not given extra space, they do nothing. So part of the honey crop is lost.
- In early Spring, crowded bees will swarm and again, part of the honey crop is lost.
- The colony is given extra space, so it can build comb and continue to grow and store surplus honey
Before the major flow starts, be sure to give colonies the space they need BEFORE they need it.
Melting down beeswax is a pleasant process. Beeswax has a pleasant aroma. However, beeswax is highly flammable and can result in a quick, hot fire. In many commercial beekeeping operations, the wax rendering facility is a separate building from the main facility. Beeswax melts at 147°F and molten wax floats on water. Beekeepers having only a few hives can render a small amount of wax in a double boiler where it can be ladled off and allowed to solidify into molded beeswax cakes. For larger operations, there are many models of melting devices that can be used to melt beeswax. Though most of these devices require hot water to accomplish wax rendering, some wax melters use hot air as the heat source. Wax is extremely durable and stable but will readily absorb residues from surrounding chemical sources.
A popular melting device for the hobby beekeeper is the solar wax melter. It is primarily a box, painted black on the outside and white on the inside with a glass covering. The box is normally tilted in order for melted wax to run out into a collection pan Many times, discarded refrigerators with the door replaced with a double glass cover have been modified into solar wax melters. Other beekeepers have put their melters on pivot posts to have the melter always facing the sun.
Though solar wax melters are extremely cheap to use, they are inefficient. Probably only about 50% of the wax is recovered from a solar melter. Additionally, old hard combs are nearly impossible to melt in solar melters.
Slumgum is that ugly residue that clings to the bottom of a roughrendered cake of beeswax. It is made up of everything that is not honey and wax – though it does include a significant amount of wax. As it builds up inside the melter, it begins to form an insulating layer between the heat and the wax to be rendered. Melters require frequent cleaning – a messy job. Having a large content of cocoons and hive litter, the dark slumgum can be pressed under pressure in order to yield more wax, but pressing devices are rarely available to hobby beekeepers. Other than being an excellent fire starter for wintertime fires, slumgum has little use. Neither is it attractive to bees or wax moths.
In years past, the production of beeswax candles was a prominent reason for keeping bees. Even today, beeswax candles are high quality candles that are nearly smokeless and dripless. Candles can be either poured or dipped. Poured candles are generally smoother, but may not have the character that hand-dipped candles have. Though still available as new devices, antique candlepouring molds are frequently seen in antique shops and are expensive. Candle making is an aspect of beekeeping that many people do without ever owning a hive.
The Candle Wick. Clearly, a wick is required for a candle to burn. The wick absorbs the wax in a liquid form and burns the molten beeswax absorbed by the wick. Too large a wick and the candle sides burn out from excessive heat, while too small a wick results in a hole burning down the center of the candle until the flame is extinguished. All wicking today is braided. When burned, braided wicking curls to one side and does not require frequent trimming (snuffing). Wicking can be purchased from candle supply stores or from craft shops. Specify the diameter candle to be made when you purchase wicking.
Hand-Dipped Beeswax Candles. Always remember that beeswax is highly flammable. When making simple hand-dipped candles, liquefy enough beeswax to yield the length of candle desired in a non-ferrous container. Attach a weight to the end of the wicking and dip the weighted wick into the molten wax to the depth desired. Pull the wick from the molten wax and wait a few seconds for the hot wax to solidify. Then dip and wait, dip and wait until the desired size candle is produced. This procedure does not guarantee a perfect candle, but a functional candle will be dipped.
Poured Candles. Depending on the mold, either tin or rubber, thread the wicking through the mold and pour the molten wax into the mold. Craft stores sell a candle release compound so the wax will not stick to the mold. After thoroughly cooling, open the mold and remove the candles. In many cases, poured candles will be attached by the wicking and will require cutting the wick in order to get two separate candles.
Beeswax Foundation Candles. Beeswax foundation, as is used in frames, can be rolled around a wick to produce a beeswax candle. This candle will burn more quickly than either a hand-dipped or poured candle but does not require any heat or molten wax. Candle sheets come in a variety of colors and are easy to make.
The End of the Year
Finishing the wax crop and pouring a few candles really is the end of the past beekeeping year. Life in the hive goes on. Next year will be more of the same, but with continual improvements. Next year, healthier bees, more honey, fewer swarms, and more stories. I’m planning already.
Dr. James E. Tew, State Specialist, Beekeeping, The AL Cooperative Extension System, Auburn Univ; Emeritus Faculty, The OH State Univ. Tewbee2@gmail.com; http://www.onetew.com; One Tew Bee RSS Feed (www.onetew.com/feed/); http://www.facebook.com/tewbee2; @onetewbee Youtube: http://www.youtube.com/user/onetewbee/videos
A double boiler hobby wax rending system.
Cakes of rough rendered beeswax.
A box of slumgum and spent filter papers.
Beeswax candles from molds.
A shop-built jig for dipping eight candles at once.
Pouring molded Christmas ornaments.