The production of beeswax starts in the field on flowers from which bees collect both pollen and nectar. Most of this water-thin, low sugar content nectar is converted into honey within the hive; however, a portion is converted into beeswax. In the adjacent photo, a Fain's Honey bee is seen collecting nectar in late February from an algerita blossom. This early blooming, sweet smelling flower is eagerly sought after by the bees as they emerge from a cold winter and once again begin rearing brood in anticipation of the coming spring.
The production of beeswax by a colony of bees is essential to the very survival of the colony, for it is from beeswax that their combs are built. The combs are described as hexagonal cylinders naturally laid side-by-side and then back-to-back. These marvels of engineering are said to be the very most efficient use of material for the volume of honey they contain. In addition to honey, the combs are also used to store pollen and for the raising of brood.
After a field bees returns to the hive with a load of nectar, it is typically handed off to one or more of the younger hive bees with a tongue-to-tongue transfer. The hive bees (especially those in the 10 - 16 day-old bracket) are especially efficient at wax production. After consuming honey or nectar, wax is extruded as small flakes on their abdomens. It is masticated and then applied to the combs being constructed or repaired.
In the hive, honey is stored in "frames" that are easily removed so the honey can be extracted. One such frame is shown here in the photo to the right. Notice the white cappings that cover the ends of the hexagon shaped cells. It is the very presence of these cappings that indicates that the bees have pronounced that their nectar has been completely transformed in the thick golden viscous liquid we know as honey.
It is these cappings that is the source of much of the world's supply of beeswax since the cappings must be removed in order to extract the honey from the underlying cells. Actually, the cappings must be removed from both sides of the cells. This can be understood by viewing a cross section of a honey comb. Notice that cells extend out from both sides of the midrib. In this particular view, cappings are plainly visible on both sides. The cappings must be cut from both sides so that a centrifuge (called an extractor by beekeepers) can gently coax the honey out of the cells.
The frame with intact comb (minus the cappings, of course) can then be returned to the bees ready for the next honey crop. Since bees generally need to consume between 6 - 8 pounds of honey to make a pound of wax, this obviously increases honey production. There are many variations on the technique of removing these beeswax cappings; however, all rely on the fact that as beeswax increases in temperature it becomes very soft and easy to cut, so all employ a thin, hot knife. Shown here is an electrically heated uncapping knife that easily slices through the cappings. After removing the cappings (and
some adhering honey) from both sides of the comb, the cappings drop into a basket as a long continuous sheets where most of the heavier accompanying honey settles to the bottom and is drained off. The frame with most of the honey still in its comb is placed into an extractor where it is rotated along with many other frames until essentially all the honey is thrown out. The extracted, empty frames are then returned to the bees.
The cappings are then melted (beeswax melts at 149 F) causing the melted, lighter wax to rise to the top with any remaining honey on the bottom. (Shown here is a commercial device used in this melting process; however, many beekeepers construct their own devices that work equally well.) The two are then separated with the melted beeswax being poured into molds. These "cakes" of wax are stacked and ready to be sold to the various industries using beeswax.
One of the primary consumers of beeswax is the candle industry. Most of the beeswax produced by Fain's Honey is used by The Beeswax Company (www.beeswaxco.com), producers of a wide variety of high quality beeswax candles. Another use of beeswax is in the manufacture of "foundation" for use by beekeepers. Foundation is the midrib of a honeycomb and is hung in the center of the frame so as to get the bees to build combs exactly aligned with the frames. Otherwise, they would criss-cross their combs between several frames making them impossible to remove without tearing up the combs.
The Beeswax Company in our neighboring city of Mason, Texas has an especially interesting website where they showcase their outstanding line of beeswax candles. There, you will find beeswax pillars, votives, elegant octagon spirals, three-wick pillars, ball & cube candles, beehive skep candles, glass container candles, floating candles, Christmas candles, candle sticks, tapers, tealights, multipurpose bulk beeswax, candle holders, and candelabra. On their website they also have pages on "How beeswax is made" and "How honey is made".
Their page on beeswax production has greater depth than that discussed above. You will find there a very interesting picture of wax scales being extruded from the abdomen of a bee.
Be sure to check out their page on the relative merits of beeswax candles as compared to paraffin candles. This could be a real eye opener if you are interested in healthy living and having clean air inside the home.