What is beeswax? Beeswax is a secretion of the worker honeybees used for building combs and sealing stores of honey. Four pairs of glands on the underside of the abdomen produce it. The glands become active when the bee is 8 to 17 days old. Comb building is a communal process rather than individual. The temperature of the hive must be 33 - 35oC, there must be a surplus supply of food and enough bees of the right age for secreting wax. The bees need to eat from 8 to 13 Kg of honey to produce 1 Kg of wax. The bees also need pollen in their diet.
Worker bees about to secret wax gorge themselves with honey and hang together in clusters or chains across the space to be filled. After about 24 hours the glands produce wax. A liquid at first, the wax soon hardens to a small white flake. Using a spine on the hind leg, the bee removes each flake in turn and passes it to the mandibles (jaws) where it is chewed and mixed with glandular secretions. The manipulated wax flake is normally passed to other workers who mould it into shape and push it into place on the growing comb. A single flake takes about 4 minutes to process.
Bees wax is always white when first secreted regardless of the food consumed by the bees. Pigments of pollen incorporated with the secreted wax change the colour to yellow. Brood rearing darkens the wax after each brood cycle. This colouration comes from used pupal cocoons and accumulated larval faeces in the cell. Beeswax is a very stable substance and does not alter significantly with storage. The melting point of beeswax is 64oC, the highest of any known natural wax. Its specific gravity is 0.96, which means that it floats on water.
Sources of Beeswax. There are three main sources of beeswax for a beekeeper - cappings, scrapings, and old or damaged combs. Wax from old combs should be kept separate from other types of wax. Lighter wax is worth more than dark wax.
Cappings: The uncapping of honeycombs provides the beekeeper with the greatest quantities of wax - approximately 14 - 18 Kg per tonne of honey.
Scrapings: beeswax can also be scrapped from the hive parts, such as burr comb from frames, queen excluders, or the insides of boxes. Two good reasons for removing the wax:
- If allowed to accumulate it is difficult to manipulate frames and hive management becomes time consuming.
- Wax should be salvaged from the hive as it is a valuable product. About 1/2 kilogram of wax can be scrapped from a hive. Wax scrapped from the hive should not be discarded in the apiary as it could spread disease and provoke robbing.
Cull combs: Old black brood combs with frames in bad disrepair. Frames with broken lugs and frames full of old pollen. Old frames also act as a reservoir for nosema apis spores - by replacing old combs regularly this helps to control the disease. As a rough guide replace 3 combs / frames per year per hive. The average yield of recovered wax is 1.6 Kg per 10 full depth frames. Beeswax must not be rendered out of diseased frames because of the dangers of robbing. The old Apiaries Act, and now the Biosecurity Act require that all diseased frames be burnt and then buried.
Processing cappings: The cappings contain honey also. Firstly as much honey as possible must be removed. Drain or strain most of the honey from the wax through a basket mad of cheese cloth or nylon mesh. Not all the honey will drain out. Some beekeepers wash out the remainder and make mead with the honey-water mixture, or feed it back to the bees. Never feed the honey with cappings in the open as this causes fierce robbing and can spread disease.
Feeding cappings: put wet cappings into a large dish/pan inside an empty box (super) on a hive. Turn the cappings occasionally. A second method is similar to the first but requires boxes of wet cappings placed above a large tray/dish/pan on chicken mesh/queen excluder. The bees gain access through the above removing the honey - the dry wax falls down into the removable tray. Remove wax when dry.
Alan Richards (Camp Rangi - 1998)