My teacher called me before class started and asked me to bring some candles. Our topic was going to be wax. Yay! In former times, bees were considered more valuable for their wax than their honey. Candle light was a privilege and a luxury. With the introduction of chemically produced waxes such as paraffin (the sludge from the bottom of an oil barrel), beeswax lost its importance. Beeswax is a luxury product to be cherished. Read about the advantages of beeswax here.
In my first bee class, we learned about the worker bee and the different stages of her very short (35 days) but busy life. Between days 12 and 18, she develops wax producing glands and is responsible for building the honey comb. When a forager bee returns to the hive, she passes off the nectar from her tongue to the tongue of another worker bee within the hive. The bees use special glands to convert the sugar from the honey and basically "sweat" it out of their body into the form of wax. The wax appears as small flakes (no larger than a pin head) on the underside of the bee's abdomen. The bee then chews these flakes to soften them and make them pliable enough to build the honey comb. The bees keep their hive at about 35 degrees Celsius, warm enough for the bees to mold the wax. Beeswax starts out white and colors with age.
The honeycomb's shape is truly an art of engineering. The hexagon has been proven to be the most efficient form for holding honey as the six-sided shape uses the minimum amount of wax but stores the maximum amount of honey. Interesting though, we learned that the bees actually make a cylinder shape. The bees then heat the cylinder with their body allowing the wax to melt and flow into the adjacent gaps, thus creating the hexagon shape.
It's difficult to remember these numbers but each time I hear them, I am amazed and understand the high price of beeswax. So here goes: One hive only produces about 1/2 kg of wax. In order to produce this half a kilogram of wax, they need 5 kg of honey and 1/2 kg of pollen. And for 1 kg of beeswax, approximately 1,250,000 wax flakes from the abdomen of the honey bee are needed. So to give you an idea, these two candles contain about 1/4 kg of beeswax.
So now we know how the bees make the wax, but how does the beekeeper get to the wax. Most of your wax will be harvested during the honey harvest from the cappings that you slice off before placing the frames in the extractor (We talked about this in a previous beekeeper class). Let these cappings drain for a few days to make sure that most of the honey comes out. Then wash any remaining honey off of the cappings with warm water. Use a double boiler to melt the wax. Strain the melted beeswax through a cheese cloth. This process needs to be repeated until all impurities have been removed. Pour the cleaned wax into a block mold, let dry and save it until you are ready to use it. No hurry though as beeswax, just like honey, never expires. And if you are getting serious about your wax production (like me!), then you can build your very own steam wax melter to make this process a bit easier. More on that in another post though.
Photo: Katrien Berckmoes
The wax foundation is one of the greatest inventions of modern beekeeping. Honeycomb is built in an orderly fashion and the beekeeper's job is greatly facilitated. Another advantage of using a wax foundation is that only female worker bee cells are built as the pre-formed indentations are too small for drone cells. The varroa mite is attracted to the drones and keeping the drones in separate frames helps keep this pest under control. Simply add two empty frames per hive and the bees will use this free space to build drone cells.
When starting out, the new beekeeper obviously won't have his/her own wax to make his own wax foundations. What to do? Be sure to purchase wax foundations that are certified chemical-free. This way you can ensure a future source of clean wax and honey in your hive. New foundation must be used each time the comb is replaced. This keeps disease and chemicals to a minimum. Only use freshly produced capping wax and the wax from the drone frames for wax foundations. Do not reuse the old foundations. The goal is to establish your own wax cycle within the hive. Old comb out, new comb in.
Beekeepers like to keep things organized in the hive, the wax foundation plays a big role. But how do you get those perfect hexagons pressed into a sheet of beeswax? You need a wax foundation press. The press basically works like a waffle iron. Keep it greased (you can use a commercially bought liquid release agent or try water with a couple drops of dish cleaning detergent), pour in the dough (in our case wax), close, wait a couple of seconds, open and remove your waffle (or wax foundation). It took us a few times to get it right but no worries, just add the foundation back to the melting pot and try again until you get the hang of it. Be careful when removing the sheet of wax as a finger imprint could cause the bees to build drones in the larger indentation.
No wax. No honey. Less food. What would we do without these precious bees?