Beeswax – an ancient marvel

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Beeswax (in Latin Cera Apis) is a natural wax produced by worker honey bees (the females) of the gender Apis in the bee hive. Worker bees secrete beeswax from six special glands located on their abdomen. In order to produce the wax, the bee has to consume large amounts of honey and pollen. The worker bees have to use around 4-5 lbs of honey to secrete 1 lb of the wax. The wax is secreted in the form of small scales (of the size of a pinhead) and about 1100 scales are required to make a gram of wax. The scales are subsequently molded by the worker bee using her mouthparts into a comb. These scales are initially clear, tasteless, odorless and colorless and become opaque and darker – more yellow or brown - from contamination with pollen and propolis.
Beeswax is used by honey bees to build honeycomb cells in which they raise their young and store honey and pollen. The structure of the hexagonal cells of the honeycomb is an amazing wonder of architecture. It forms an extremely strong and robust structure which provides maximum cell space with the use of the minimum amount of the building material – the wax. While beeswax is the main material for the construction of the honeycomb, propolis (which is also called the bee glue) is used to fill and repair small gaps and cracks in the honeycomb and to smooth rough surfaces. Propolis is a resinous substance that honey bees collect from tree buds, sap flows, or other sources of natural resins.
The empirical chemical formula for beeswax is C15H51COOC30H61, but in reality it is constituted of a very complex, specific mixture of various organic acid and esters. As mentioned, the bessawax scales secreted by the workers bees are originally clear and odorless, but during its use in the honeycomb the beeswax becomes more and more contaminated with the pollen, honey and propolis. This is how the beeswax obtains its unique color and aroma, which is a specific mixture of the fragrance of honey, propolis and pollen. .In the same way as various types of honey depend on the type of flowers that the bees collect the nectar from, the beeswax aroma and shade also reflects the type of the nectar. For example, the buckwheat honey is darker than the clover honey, and so is the beeswax.
Beekeepers collect the beeswax from the hive from time to time in order to refresh and rebuild the hives. Generally beeswax needs to be cleaned before use. Since beeswax has a low density and floats on water, while the impurities are heavier, it is usually cleaned in the water bath, which allows the impurities to be separated. However, the desired aroma and charm of beeswax (as well as many of its unique health advantages) come actually from these natural “contaminants” – honey, propolis and pollen. Therefore, bleaching or advanced refining of beeswax in order to remove its color and fragrance seems to be a rather peculiar idea.
Beeswax has had many uses over the millennia. From the legendary Icarus, who tried to reach the Sun with his wax-and-feather wings, to sacred rituals in Egyptians and Roman temples, as well as religious celebrations in modern churches, beeswax was always part of the human history. Amazingly, evidence of various uses of the beeswax can be found in many archeological sites because of its exceptional resistance and durability. Beeswax artifacts seem to be almost unchanged, either found in the Egyptians crypts, or taken out from the shipwrecks after hundreds of years under the sea. Even a “Neolithic” beeswax has been discovered and studied.
The most amazing features of all honey bee products are their healing properties. Although this knowledge has been commonly used over the millennia, it seems almost forgotten in the present times. We seem to be genuinely surprised to hear the news of recent scientific discoveries that honey can effectively fight the flu and common colds. But was it your grandmother who told you to drink warm milk with honey when you were getting a cold? Not only honey, but also propolis and beeswax have numerous, amazing healing properties. And it seems to be only the tip of the iceberg that we know and understand about honey bees so far.
More and more scientific studies prove the wonders of the bee products. For example, a relatively recent study published in the Archives of Medical Research Volume 36, Issue 1, Pages 10-13 (January 2005) showed that a mixture of honey, beeswax and olive oil is exceptionally effective in inhibiting growth of Staphylococcus aureus and Candida albicans and therefore is very useful in the treatment of diaper dermatitis, psoriasis and eczema. The medical wonders of propolis are even more amazing. It is being widely studied, showing already great promise in almost all aspects of health improvement – from inflammation and heart disease to anti-tumor properties.
The most widely appreciated use of the beeswax was in candle making. Beeswax candles witnessed a great deal of human history and although they ceased to be the basic source of lighting, they still provide unparallel religious and spiritual ambiance.