How Beeswax is Made
This soft wax is made in an extraordinary way. It starts life in eight little wax glands under the bee’s body. The wax runs out of the glands into eight little pockets, also on the bee’s body, where it sets. The bee then scoops the wax out of each pocket with its mouth and chews it to make a small disk or scale measuring 0.1mm x 4mm. This tiny scale (you would need about 25,000 of them to make up one ounce) is added to the
hexagonal structure that you can see in any beehive. All these hexagons are made out of beeswax in this way and the whole thing is what we call the honeycomb, which is the actual structure of the hive. Wax is also used to cap the individual cells of the honeycomb when they are being used for breeding young bees.
Note that wasps or yellow jackets also make combs that are hexagonal and look on the face of it fairly similar to those of bees, but there is a big difference. The yellow jacket makes its comb from wood chewed from trees or fences and mixed with saliva into a papery material; not from wax at all.
Beeswax varies a lot, as does any product from the bees, depending on where it comes from, the weather and the time of year. It is mostly made of a substance called myricyl palmitate, which is a type of chemical known as an ester, but there are many other ingredients. These are the main four ingredients and approximate percentages:
Uses for Beeswax
Beeswax is used pretty much in its raw state to make candles, as you probably know, but did you know that it’s virtually insoluble in water? This makes it an excellent waterproofing material, and it has long been used in tent seams and in fishing nets. It is also used as a machine lubricant, where it acts just the same as when you use it at home to make a sticking drawer slide better. Beeswax also plays a part as an ingredient in pharmaceutical products, such as hand creams, lip salves, sun creams, mascara and many other cosmetics, where it is often used as a thickening, binding or emulsifying agent. Many furniture polishes also contain this useful bee product.
Buying Tips for Beeswax
What you buy depends on what you want to make. For candles, you need to get beeswax that has been produced by melting the comb at the lowest possible temperature, so that the natural aroma is preserved. If you’re planning to use beeswax to make a lip balm or other cosmetic/pharmaceutical product at home, it is safest to make sure you get wax that is certified by the United States Pharmacopeia (USP), in which case it can carry the USP logo that has the words “USP-verified pharmaceutical ingredient” on it. In this way you can be sure that you are getting the right grade of wax, but if you trust your supplier you may decide that you don’t need this safeguard. Only you can make that decision.
As with other bee products, some people are allergic to beeswax. If this is a concern to you, I recommend that you obtain an allergy test before you use pharmaceutical or cosmetic beeswax products.