Beeswax is an amazing substance: It is created in the glands of young honey bees who convert plant sugars into fatty molecules. It is chewed and warmed, then manipulated and shaped into a precise and nearly unwavering pattern of three-dimensional cavities that can hold the food or the young of the honey bee colony. Learn what goes into the beeswax-making process, and see how beekeepers use this precious substance.
The transition from wax scales — tiny, oval, white flakes about the size of the head of a pin — to beeswax takes thousands of bees. Hooked together by their legs in a drape-y festoon, the bees pass the wax flakes forward, where they are aggregated and warmed to a temperature over 100 degrees F. The wax is then pushed and stretched into an ever-expanding area of cells that gradually begin to grow outward from a central plane. The distinctive hexagonal shape of the cells is a mathematical solution to the problem of getting the largest number of adjacent, but separate, cells within a given area.
According to researchers, the cells start out round, and over two days the wax gradually assumes the familiar hexagonal shape. The thin common walls between the cells allow for the transmission of body heat through the wax. The cells are made to very precise dimensions, repeated thousands of times on a single frame. The combs stay plumb and even, despite the bees working entirely in the dark. It is believed that tiny magnetic receptors in their bodies allow them to perceive gravity.
Bees that are 8 to 12 days old are the prime producers of the wax, though older bees, even those that have begun foraging, can revert to wax making in an emergency. You need to have a large enough population of these wax makers for new comb-making to begin in earnest, and they need to have access to a steady source of excess calories to fuel their wax glands.
Beekeepers know that having enough drawn comb is what will help prevent swarming due to a crowded hive — and also offer room to store the first flush of the summer flow. Small populations with erratic sources of nectar won’t suffice. Beekeepers can boost the calories available by feeding, but nothing can remedy the weakness of a small colony emerging from winter except time to make a slow build-up.
The last two necessary conditions for wax-making are the pressing need for more cells — from the bees’ point of view not the beekeeper’s — and warm-enough air temperatures in the hive, which allow bees to mold the warmer wax.
The need for brood cell space is the most forceful driver of comb production, which is why a package of bees (if fed syrup), or a swarm, will draw comb quickly. Since the adults are rapidly aging, the bees must get replacements started immediately. While the first eggs will be laid in partly drawn cells, the cells must be completed when the larvae are ready to be capped — within nine days. There is less urgency about having enough room for incoming nectar, but still, a strong flow and warm temperatures (which often go hand in hand) will prompt rapid comb-drawing in early summer.
As the summer continues, even in the presence of a good source of nectar or syrup, the urge to convert those calories into wax to make more storage space wanes. So that’s why new beekeepers establishing a hive are told to feed as much as the bees will take from the beginning. The goal is to get the full number of combs needed for good wintering drawn before stopping the supplemental feeding.
Bar of Beeswax.
As much as it is essential to colony survival, beeswax is also valuable to beekeepers. For centuries, its use in candles made it worth more, pound for pound, than honey. Beeswax can be used to lubricate, waterproof, condition, and polish. Even today, when petroleum-based waxes have largely replaced the need for beeswax in candles and lubricants, it is still highly sought after for cosmetic, scientific, and food production purposes. And of course, we still like to make candles from beeswax, as it burns with a clean, bright flame.
That’s why wise beekeepers conserve every bit: They protect frames of drawn comb from damage out of respect for the almost unimaginable amount of work the bees devoted to drawing it and collect and melt down any wax that’s removed from the bees’ use, whether as scrapings during hive maintenance or cappings at harvest time. There are many ways to collect and process beeswax, but using a solar wax melter or an old crock pot are both easy options.
Beeswax is a product of the hive that’s as valuable as the honey the bees produce. You can purchase prepared wax if you’re not a beekeeper, but want to craft with wax. Learn how to capture, filter, and use beeswax in our Beekeeping Guide.