You’ll find beeswax in many consumer-grade products, from candles and furniture polish to lip balms and lotions. And, bee-live it or not, this all-natural ingredient can be used for encaustic art or hot wax painting. But what exactly is this wax, and how do bees make them?
In this article, you’ll discover this second bee by-product, its importance in colonies, why many industries are buzzing over it, and its never-ending array of uses. We’ve also included an expert guide on harvesting beeswax so you can turn it into candles, salves, or balms.
What is Beeswax?
As mentioned earlier, beeswax is the second bee by-product, after the coveted liquid gold, aka honey. It is an all-natural substance that bees generate and secrete during their postemergence stage .
Organic beeswax contains multiple compounds, with monoesters, hydrocarbons, and free fatty acids as the major components . So, what do they look like?
When bees are making wax, it is in a pure white color. However, once ready for harvesting, you’ll notice that it has turned yellow to brownish. This is because it has been exposed to honey, propolis, and pollen. Wax processors often use solar bleaching (bleaching the wax under the sun) to lighten the color.
In general, beeswax is categorized into three different types:
- Yellow beeswax: Waxes with a yellow tone are purer natural beeswax. However, some treatment (either heat or filter, or both) is applied for debris and impurity removal.
- White beeswax: White beeswax goes through a pressure-filtered process to remove the yellow color and debris. Contrary to common belief, white waxes are still natural, as the refining method does not use chemicals.
- Absolute beeswax: This type has a golden amber tone, which results from adding alcohol to a yellow beeswax variety. It is often used as a fragrance for perfumes, soaps, and other cosmetic products.
Why Do Bees Make wax?
Bees make wax for honeycomb construction, which in return provides them a place to store honey and pollen and protect the brood. Here is a closer look at why it is crucial to bee colonies.
Construct Honeycomb Cells
Beeswax is the foundation of the hive, as bees use them to create honeycombs.
When bees secrete the wax, they (or an obliging worker bee) chew it until it is pliable, like moldable clay. They will then add it to the comb and shape it (using their body heat) to the hexagonal shape we associate with honeycombs.
If you’ve ever wondered why honeycombs are hexagonal instead of circles or other shapes, this is because hexagons are space efficient. Amazingly, in equal sizes, hexagons can fill an entire plane without wasting any space.
Furthermore, hexagons are less demanding for bees to make . How long does it take a bee to make wax? Bees can only create eight flakes in a span of 12 hours, and to make a single cell, they need at least 1,000 wax scales! 
Honey and Pollen Storage for Winter Survival
Bees stay inside the hive, unlike other insects that migrate during cold winter months. They do this not to conserve energy but to keep the colony warm. They do not leave to forage for pollen and nectar; instead, they form into a cluster, vibrating their flight muscles to generate heat .
Since they do not go outside and there are fewer flowers to collect nectar, they must rely on what they’ve collected and capped. This is where beeswax is vital to the survival of a colony.
Without the wax, they cannot make honeycombs, and without honeycombs, they don’t have a place for honey to store.
Most people associate beeswax as the building block of honeycombs. However, that is not its only purpose. Bees also use beeswax to cover a honey-filled cell. They do this to protect the honey from losing and absorbing moisture.
Once the cell is full of honey and has reached the ideal moisture levels (between 16%-17%), worker bees will secrete beeswax and apply a thin layer on the cell.
Larvae Rearing and Brood Protection
Honeycombs are not only for food storage; bees also use them as homes to cradle and rear larvae (they will turn into young worker bees who will be responsible for producing the next wax batch – more on this later!).
As mentioned earlier, the queen lays her eggs on each cell. Once it hatches, the adult bee nurses give the larvae bee bread, which is a combination of pollen and nectar. The larvae will then turn into a pupa and stay in the cell until it emerges as a young worker bee, usually on the 21st day.
Without it to build the honeycomb, there is no place for the eggs to hatch and grow into bees.
How Do Bees Make Wax?
According to The British Beekeepers Association, bees produce 1 pound (roughly 450 Grams) of wax for every 6lb (roughly 2.7kg) of honey . They will need to eat at least 8 kilograms of honey to produce 1 kilo of wax. Some apiarists feed the hive with sugar syrup or water to encourage wax production, especially when the colony is new or doesn’t have enough workers to kickstart comb-building.
The Role of the Worker Bees
The simplest way to explain the beeswax-making process is that bees secrete it.
As teased earlier, young worker bees, between 12-18 days old, are responsible for the wax production. On their abdomen, you will find eight wax-secreting glands .
When they huddle together, this increases the hive’s temperature, which will then encourage their glands to process the sugar (from the consumed honey) in their bodies into beeswax.
The wax will then ooze out from their abdomen. Contrary to common belief, the wax is not yet solid when secreted. It is in liquid form and will only harden when exposed to air. So, how do they remove these flakes from their bodies? There are two ways.
First, they do it themselves. Since the wax is on their underside, they will have to use their hind legs to grab the flakes and move them up to their middle legs, which will then be passed to their mandibles.
Another way is to have another obliging worker bee take the secreted wax from their belly.
Either way, the wax will end up in their mouth, as they need to make it into a pliable consistency before they can use it to make the honeycomb cells for honey storage or brood rearing.
Once a bee ages, its wax glands reduce in size, and it will stop producing the wax; they will need new young worker bees again, and the cycle repeats.
Beeswax Creation: Quick Guide
Here is a step-by-step process to better understand how bees make wax:
- Bees huddle together to encourage the wax glands to process the sugar.
- Wax oozes out through the bees’ underside.
- The bees use their hind and middle legs to move the wax into their mouth. Alternatively, other worker bees can remove the wax.
- Wax will then be chewed, mixing saliva enzymes and honey until the wax is pliable.
- Pliable wax is then moved into the comb and shaped into a hexagon.
What Is Beeswax Used For?
As mentioned earlier, it contains multiple compounds that are all-natural and non-toxic. As a matter of fact, using this wax dates as far as 9,000 years ago .
Today, this organic, chemical-free wax is used in many applications, ranging from candles to cosmetic products. Here are two popular uses.
Beauty and Skincare Products
Waxes made by bees are superior to synthetic ingredients, as they contain antiseptic properties. Furthermore, it can lock in moisture from the skin and prevent water loss, is vitamin A rich, and can soften skin .
Here are some beauty and skincare products that use beeswax:
- Lip Balm
- Moisturizing Cream
Unlike paraffin, beeswax candles have a longer burning time because of their high melting point of 62 to 65°C – the highest of all the available waxes! Bees’ wax also gives off a subtle scent thanks to its nectar and honey content, and if you ever want a stronger fragrance, adding a few drops of essential oil complements the natural aroma of the wax.
Other uses of this all-natural wax include:
- Furniture polish
- Food wrap
- Leather shoe polish
How to Harvest Beeswax?
Successfully harvesting the wax from the hive requires using the right tools and equipment (like an electric hot knife) and following the correct process. Bee farms usually collect the wax when they harvest the raw honey. By doing so, it minimizes the disturbance to the colony. Here’s how you should collect the wax:
1. Remove the Frame
Open the beehive box and collect the frame. Make sure that the frame is full of honey and capped with wax. You’ll know that it is capped if you see a white wax film on the surface of the honeycomb. Although the uncapped honey is still edible, its high moisture content can lead to faster fermentation.
2. Slice Off the Wax Cappings
Place the frame on a bucket (or any container that is larger than the frame). Some apiarists use two containers – a larger one and a smaller one with holes and a filter bag. They place them on top of each other, with the smaller container on top. This way, they don’t waste the dripping honey when slicing off the wax cappings. Others just use uncapping tanks.
Then, get a serrated kitchen knife. Scrape the sides of the frame, removing the excess wax. The wax should fall into the canister.
Then, grab an electric hot knife. Start from the top of the honeycomb, and gently (in a back-and-forth motion) move the knife all the way down to the frame. The wax will roll and deposit into the container. Repeat the process on the other side.
If the edges still have wax, simply use an uncapping fork tool and scrape the wax.
How to Harvest Beeswax Ethically
To ethically harvest beeswax, ensure that the bees and their colonies remain unharmed by using the “cut-comb” method of only removing abandoned wax comb from the hive. Cut-comb harvesting is a method for collecting beeswax from a hive without harming the bees or their colony. Alternatively, use the “crush and strain” method to separate the wax from honey and debris. Prioritize the bees’ sustenance by providing ample food and resources before and after the harvest. Also, clean and purify the wax using natural, non-toxic, and bee-friendly methods.
Ethical Harvesting Guide
- Wait for the right time: Cut-comb harvesting should be done when the bees are not actively using the comb. Usually, this is after the honey has been harvested, and the bees have abandoned the comb.
- Inspect the hive: Before removing any comb, check the hive to ensure that it is healthy and that the bees have enough food and resources to sustain themselves.
- Use the right tools: Use a hive tool or a small knife to carefully remove the comb from the frames. Be sure to use a tool that is not sharp, as this can damage the comb and the bees.
- Cut-Comb Harvesting
- Remove the comb: Gently remove the comb from the hive, being careful not to crush or damage it. Place the comb in a container or on a clean surface.
- Crush and Strain Harvesting
- Crush the comb: Place the comb in a container and crush it using a tool such as a rolling pin, or a manual grinder.
- Strain the mixture: Strain the crushed comb through a fine mesh strainer or cheesecloth to separate the wax from the honey and other debris.
- Cut-Comb Harvesting
- Clean and purify the wax: Once you have removed the comb, it should be cleaned and purified before using it. This can be done by melting the comb in a double boiler and skimming off any debris.
- Check the hive after: After the cut-comb harvesting, it is important to check the hive to ensure that the bees are healthy and that they have enough resources to sustain themselves.
It’s best to do this at the right time of the year, as bees need the wax for brood rearing, honey storage, and insulation.
How to filter beeswax
1. Separate the Beeswax from the Honey
Wax is sticky and will most likely contain debris and honey. However, many beginner apiarists skip this step, but it’s advantageous. Plus, the process is simple:
- Get a double boiler. If you don’t have one, take a pot and fill it with water, and then place a smaller stainless bowl inside the pot. Put the collected wax cappings into the bowl.
- Turn on the stove. Let it heat the pot slowly. The wax and honey will then separate, with the honey at the bottom and the wax at the top.
- Once it slightly cools down, collect the wax into a fine cheesecloth. You can use several cloths and layer them if there is a lot of debris.
2. Melting Beeswax
Once you place the wax into a fine cheesecloth, use a string to tie it. Then, grab a large pot of water and put the cloth inside. Turn on the stove and let it heat the pot slowly. The wax will then melt, leaving the cloth filled with debris.
Remove the cloth from the pot and set it aside. Once the pot cools down, you can now collect the wax.
3. Storing Beeswax
If you don’t intend to utilize the clean collected wax anytime soon, you can store it.
- From step 2 you can reheat the pot of wax using the double boiler method.
- Then, pour it into a mold.
- Let it cool down.
- Remove the wax.
- Transfer the wax to tightly sealed containers.
- Store the containers in a cool and dry area.
When kept in the right storage conditions, raw beeswax will not spoil. As a matter of fact, you can reuse or reheat it as many times as you want.
Bees do not only produce honey; they also make wax. This wax is crucial to the colony’s survival, as they use it to build comb cells, which in return, they have a place to store honey and raise bees. Since it is also natural and toxic-free, beeswax offers many human benefits.