What is Beeswax?

11 Jul 2019

Naturally yellow, pleasantly fragranced with a faint honey scent, and malleable, natural beeswax is an incredibly versatile product. It offers a durable, water-repellent property that’s highly sought after in manufacturing and cosmetics, and burns cleanly when melted in candles. The natural components of beeswax have provided humans with the ingredients to construct various skin care creams, cosmetics, and lip balm products.

As the name suggests, it comes directly from hard-working bees, but the intricate and fascinating process of its creation is as much an art as it a science. So how exactly do bees – the tiny, busy gatherers of pollen and makers of golden honey – find the time to create this marvelous substance, too? The answer starts, as with most of the wonders produced by these incredible insects, with a worker bee and a flower.

The Story of Beeswax: A Sweet Tale

Honey-loving humans are often surprised to know that their favorite golden syrup starts life as plant nectar. This sweet, watery liquid is produced by flowers and plants as an enticing reward for bees’ pollination: think of it as offering an appealingly cold drink to a hardworking mail carrier on a hot day. The worker bee benefits from receiving the nectar, and the plant benefits by either receiving or transferring its DNA-laden pollen onto the bee’s body. As the worker bee visits other flowers of the same variety, the original flower’s DNA is propagated as the transferred pollen is used to reproduce.  

The rewarding nectar is stored in the worker bee’s stomach, and when she returns to the hive, it’s transferred bee-to-bee, losing a little water with each transfer. Eventually, the highly-concentrated nectar becomes honey, which is used to feed the queen bee and the rest of the hive. Baby bees (called pupae) and their nurse bees use some of this honey for energy and growth, and eventually the pupae emerge as young worker bees ready to create wax.

The First Task is Wax

Young worker bees have special planes along the underside of their abdomen called “wax mirrors.” These flat surfaces are used to spread out liquefied wax secreted from the glands, tucked between each set of planes, allowing it to dry. These dried flakes of wax are scraped off with stiff, bristle-like hairs on the worker bee’s back legs, and passed up her body to collect and combine. The worker will then use her mandibles to chew the flakes, softening them and turning them into a malleable, soft yellow substance commonly known as beeswax.  

The worker, at her peak, will be able to produce a little over one scale of wax over the course of two hours, or about 10-12 scales a day. The hive needs approximately 1,000 or more scales of wax to maintain structure, temperature, and more, which is one of the reasons why so many bees are needed to maintain the average bee hive. Wax is used to create cells within the hive, as well as their waxy caps – used to protect honey, pupae, queen cells, royal jelly, and more. The octagonal structure of each honeycomb cell is cleverly designed to offer maximum support and versatility with minimal material. The amazingly uniform cell thickness of each wall comes courtesy of the worker bees’ caliper-like mandibles, which are constantly used to determine thickness while building.

Wax-Making Retirement

Worker bees will not produce wax for their entire lives; it’s a task that is specifically reserved for newly-emerged, formerly-pupae worker bees. As a worker bee ages, her wax-making glands will atrophy, and her wax mirrors will no longer be used to create the substance. 

At this time, she’ll take on another task in the hive – using wing vibrations to regulate interior temperature, caring for pupae cells, rebuilding or expanding the hive, or emerging from the hive to gather nectar and pollen. Each job is as important as wax creation, and it is this dual (or multi!) lifelong purpose that ensures the redundancy and efficiency the hive requires for survival.

A Symbiotic Relationship

Humans and bees have worked alongside one another in gardening, agriculture, and more from the beginning of recorded history. In addition to the pollination and honey provided by a hive, the waxy combs can be gathered as well – either during the process of harvesting honey or in addition to it. Bees create excess cells, which means these can be removed and used without causing damage to the hive or colony. 

Many wonder 'is honeycomb edible' - not only is it edible, but honey aficionados often prefer honey still in the comb. Combed honey has a more complex flavor and contains trace nutrients like pollen and royal jelly in addition to the honey itself, making it nutritious. Part building material, part flower pollen, and part tasty snack, beeswax is one of the most incredible products made entirely by Mother Nature. It’s a crucial part of bee survival, human-bee symbiotic relationships, and safe storage for delicious golden honey during its journey from fragrant floral nectar to finished harvest.


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