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Sunday, January 6, 2013

None of Your Beeswax…

boiled waxUnless you purchase it…or as in my case have your own beeswax factory. “Beeswax factory”: now that I think about it, that’s quite an appropriate term for a “colony” or “hive” of bees. after all what is a hive of bees, really, (excepting the wooden frame supports) but a “House built of Wax?” There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of native bees, and of these to my knowledge, only the humble honeybee, Apis mellifera, manufactures beeswax. As you know, The Ripple is all about obtaining and presenting the straight up facts, so I thought I’d better research the subject more thoroughly. I consulted my bee scientist friend Don Rolfs and put the question to him (Don has been studying native bees for years and is currently working on a field guide for the native bees of Washington State.) It so happened I was in error. Don reminded me of the genus Bombus, the bumblebee, and continued to say that a bumblebee colony fashions “honeypots,”primitive cells compared to those of A. mellifera, from its own beeswax; however, and I think Don would agree, bumblebees, in keeping with their small numbers, produce only a minimal quantity of wax,  just enough for their needs…no more.

Beeswax. From this remarkable material honeybees fashion their living space: brood chambers, storage compartments for pollen and honey, wax buttresses for structural integrity. For the architecture of the hive, honeybees, as if they were imprinted by the geometry of Archimedes, fashion their wax into hexagons. Without throwing too much science your way, suffice it to say that as a geometric figure, the hexagon is the ideal shape for maximizing space while limiting the amount of building material. Because of the shortness of its sides, each wall of a hexagonal cell actually functions as two walls: first, for itself, and secondly for the adjoining cell, thus minimizing the amount of material used in construction. This attaching or piling on of one cell to another produces what in geometry is known as tessellations, a type of architecture known for its beauty and strength. Not only are honeybees marvels of geometry, but they are also in tune with the physics of gravity. Each waxen cell is fashioned at a slight upward tilt to the horizontal so  the uncured honey doesn’t drain or ooze from its container. beeswax comb

Scientists have analyzed the chemical composition of beeswax and found it to be a complex goulash of hydrocarbons, alcohols, and acids, but The Ripple prefers to set the science aside and focus instead on the wonder of beeswax. It is the very “sweat and blood” of the bee and is secreted by four pair of wax glands on the bee’s belly. These glands begin to form in the young honeybee at approximately two weeks of age and are active for only a certain period in the bee’s lifetime. By the time the bee becomes a field worker, the glands have basically disappeared. Beeswax itself is wonder enough but the real miracle is how the bees fashion it into comb. At this point I’ll defer to one Mr. Cheshire whose quaint description of the industrious comb fashioners I found quoted  in A.I. Root’s ABC and XYZ of Bee Culture:

The wax having been secreted, a single bee starts the first comb by attaching to the roof little masses of the plastic material, into which her scales are converted by prolonged chewing with secretion; others follow her example and the processes of scooping and thinning commence, the parts removed being always added to the edge of the work, so that in the darkness and between the bees grows downward that wonderful combination  of lightness and strength, grace and utility, which has so long provoked the wonder and awakened the speculation of the philosopher, the naturalist, and the mathematician.

The production of beeswax “waxes and wanes” according to a hive’s needs. The two activities in which a colony produces the maximum amount of wax are honey storage and swarm preparation. During a honey flow bees need additional storage space for the surplus nectar and ramp up wax production and comb building. As a hive prepares to swarm, the migrating bees gorge themselves with honey which they immediately begin to convert from sugar to wax. Because a swarm is homeless at its issue, once a suitable home is found, comb building is essential and immediate. If the new hive is to survive, the queen must begin laying eggs immediately, and she needs a place to “cradle” her young. For one wishing to observe these flakes or scales of beeswax, a swarm or recently hived swarm is the place to look. These scales are miniature works of beauty. Each is slightly pear-shaped, translucent, and excuse the melodrama but as white as “the driven snow.” My first encounter with these wax scales came a few years back after I had set a ladder under a swarm in our backyard apple tree. The ladder sat there until late afternoon until I was ready to shake the cluster into an empty box. When I dragged the box to the top of the ladder, I noticed dandruff-like scales, dainty white speckles, sprinkled on the top step of the ladder: beeswax, pure as the driven snow…the swarm was prepared to begin construction whenever and wherever immediately.

If a swarm clings for several days, it will begin comb building on the branch, fencepost—wherever it has settled—leaving  ridges of snow white comb behind whenever it leaves or is hived. In the rare chance a new home is not found for several days, the colony will attempt to build comb and establish a hive in the open air. Years ago I cut one such a colony free from the raspberry canes where it had swarmed and built several combs filled with brood, pollen, and honey. My intercession certainly saved the bees from wintering in the open, a winter they most likely would not have survived.

It is estimated that between seven to fifteen pounds of honey are necessary to produce a pound of beeswax. Experts have determined  honeybees must consume an average of 8.4 pounds to produce one  pound of beeswax. Thus by wax production the beekeeper loses honey but gains wax, another valuable and highly marketable product. Beeswax demand in the U.S.A. is twice what the industry produces, so it’s to the benefit of every beekeeper to save all the beeswax his apiary yields. These days pure beeswax, rendered and strained, commands a premium price of ten dollars a pound.

After the capping knife is cleaned and stored, the last drop of honey bottled, stainless steel equipment washed and put away, and the honey supers neatly stacked, there’s one task left for this beekeeper: rendering the season’s wax cappings into pure blocks of beeswax. cappingsAs each beeswax cell is filled with cured nectar, the bees seal it over with a thin cap of pure wax which is removed during the extracting process. Cappings wax is of the finest and cleanest quality and yields a premium product, a pale yellow beeswax. (Wax can also be rendered from old dark brood combs, but it tends to be discolored because of countless brood cycles it has undergone.)

When I had fifty plus colonies here on the place, it took nearly the entire summer to melt the previous season’s cappings. In those days I used a solar wax melter and a hot summer’s day would yield one wax brick.Wax melter By summer’s end all last year’s cappings, nearly pure beeswax, were stored in brick form. These days I use a double jacketed wax melter which functions as a double boiler. As the wax melts, it trickles out a spout into a small tub where it rises to the top of any excess honey and impurities the cappings contained.cappings wax

Residue such as bee parts, pollen, propolis cling to the bottom of the crenelated pile and must be scraped free. The wax at this stage, however, still contains impurities, so on to the next step: I combine the wax with a quart or so of water and boil both together until the wax and water mingle and the wax is washed free of extraneous debris. Rendering pot

Step two: the boiling mixture is strained through old sweat shirt material. (By the way, this cloth is easily obtained in our household, especially when the wife mandates: “Don’t you dare wear that ragged, old thing in public again!” And out to the shed it goes…more straining material.)straining cloth

The water/wax mixture is allowed to cool; the wax floats on the surface of the water and any residue adheres to the bottom of the block. Once again, I scrape away the scum. The more this process is repeated, the cleaner, the whiter, the wax becomes. I usually repeat the procedure twice which seems to be sufficient to render the blocks nearly free of impurities.Strained wax

Now I have my beeswax, purified by the water bath method, so what’s next, you ask? Just what are you going to do with all that clean, fragrant wax? Well, it’s really none of your beeswax, is it…until the next post, that is.

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