Beeswax is a natural wax produced in the bee hive of honey bees of the genus Apis. Beeswax is produced by young worker bees between 12 and 17 days old in the form of thin scales secreted by glands on the ventral surface of the abdomen. Worker bees have eight wax-producing mirror glands on the inner sides of the sternites (the ventral shield or plate of each segment of the body) on abdominal segments 4 to 7. The size of these wax glands depends on the age of the worker and after daily flights begin these glands gradually atrophy. The new wax scales are initially glass-clear and colourless (see illustration), becoming opaque after mastication by the worker bee. The wax of honeycomb is nearly white, but becomes progressively more yellow or brown by incorporation of pollen oils and propolis. The wax scales are about 3 mm across and 0.1 mm thick, and about 1100 are required to make a gram of wax.
Western honey bees use the beeswax to build honeycomb cells in which their young are raised and honey and pollen are stored. For the wax-making bees to secrete wax, the ambient temperature in the hive has to be 33 to 36 °C (91 to 97 °F). To produce their wax, bees must consume about eight times as much honey by mass. It is estimated that bees fly 150,000 miles to yield one pound of beeswax (530,000 km/kg). When beekeepers extract the honey, they cut off the wax caps from each honeycomb cell with an uncapping knife or machine. Its color varies from nearly white to brownish, but most often a shade of yellow, depending on purity and the type of flowers gathered by the bees. Wax from the brood comb of the honey bee hive tends to be darker than wax from the honeycomb. Impurities accumulate more quickly in the brood comb. Due to the impurities, the wax has to be rendered before further use. The leftovers are called slumgum.
The wax may further be clarified by heating in water and may then be used for candles or as a lubricant for drawers and windows or as a wood polish. As with petroleum waxes, it may be softened by dilution with vegetable oil to make it more workable at room temperature.
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The empirical formula for beeswax is C15H51COOC30H61. Its main components are palmitate, palmitoleate, hydroxypalmitate and oleate esters of long-chain (30-32 carbons) aliphatic alcohols, with the ratio of triacontanylpalmitate CH3(CH2)29O-CO-(CH2)14CH3 to cerotic acid CH3(CH2)24COOH, the two principal components, being 6:1.
Beeswax has a high melting point range, of 62 to 64 °C (144 to 147 °F). If beeswax is heated above 85 °C (185 °F) discoloration occurs. The flash point of beeswax is 204.4 °C (400 °F), there is no reported autoignition temperature. Density at 15 °C is 0.958 to 0.970 g/cm³.
Bee wax can be classified generally into European and Oriental types. The ratio of saponification value is lower (3-5) for European beeswax, and higher (8-9) for Oriental types.
Beeswax is used commercially to make fine candles, cosmetics and pharmaceuticals including bone wax (cosmetics and pharmaceuticals account for 60% of total consumption), in polishing materials (particularly shoe polish and furniture polish) and as a component of modelling waxes. It is commonly used during the assembly of pool tables to fill the screw holes and the seams between the slates. Accordion makers use beeswax as an adhesive, when blended with pine rosin, to attach reed plates to the structure inside an accordion. Beeswax candles are preferred in most Eastern Orthodox churches because they burn cleanly, with little or no wax dripping down the sides and little visible smoke. Beeswax is also prescribed as the material (or at least a significant part of the material) for the Paschal candle ("Easter Candle") and is recommended for other candles used in the liturgy of the Roman Catholic Church.
It is also used as a coating for cheese, to protect the food as it ages. While some cheese-makers have replaced it with plastic, many still use beeswax in order to avoid any unpleasant flavors that may result from plastic. As a food additive, beeswax is known as E901 (glazing agent).
The burning characteristics of beeswax candles differ from those of paraffin. A beeswax candle flame has a "warmer," more yellow color than that of paraffin, and the color of the flame may vary depending on the season in which the wax was harvested.
As a skin care product a German study found beeswax to be superior to similar "barrier creams" (usually mineral oil based creams, such as petroleum jelly), when used according to its protocol.
Beeswax was ancient man's first plastic, and for thousands of years has been used as a modeling material, to create sculpture and jewelry molds for use in the lost-wax casting process, or Cire perdue.
Lost wax casting of metals, practised by ancient Greeks and Romans, involved coating of a wax model with plaster, melting the wax out of the resulting mould and filling the space with molten metal. The technique is still used today by jewellers, goldsmiths and sculptors, in dentistry and even in the industrial manufacture of complex components by investment casting of metals.
The Romans sent messages on hinged pairs of wooden writing tablets coated with beeswax, the message being written into the smooth wax surface using a stylus. After it had been read the message could be erased, and a reply written and returned.
Beeswax has been used since ancient times; traces of it were found in the paintings in the Lascaux cave and in Egyptian mummies. Egyptians used it in shipbuilding as well. In the Roman period, beeswax was used as waterproofing agent for painted walls and as a medium for the Fayum mummy portraits. Nations subjugated by Rome sometimes paid tribute or taxes in beeswax. In the Middle Ages beeswax was considered valuable enough to become a form of currency. It was also used in bow making (see English longbow).
More recently it found use as a component of sealing wax, and in cosmetics. Beeswax is also the traditional material from which to make didgeridoo mouthpieces and the frets on the Philippine kutiyapi, a type of boat lute.
Beeswax has been used for hundreds of years as a sealant or lubricant for bullets in cap and ball and firearms that use black powder. It is often mixed with other ingredients such as olive oil (sweet oil) and sometimes paraffin. It can be used as an ingredient in the bullet lube used primarily in Black Powder cartridge firing weapons.