It’s the time of year when folks start dropping by the Warehome to buy honey, meet the bees, and tour the extraction facility — unfortunately for our visitors, this far North we’re not even close to extracting honey yet — Honeydew and Keith are loading the first supers onto the truck as I type — so their tours are limited to what we call the Wax Room, where I bottle the-best-honey-you’ve-never-tasted and pour beautiful beeswax candles. We’ve got a display of honey and wax products set up, and I’m noticing that a lot of our kid visitors don’t know that in addition to honey, bees produce beeswax.
So, here’s your science lesson for the week: bees secrete wax in flakes from their abdomens, and they use that wax to build what is referred to as comb, or honeycomb, comprised of interlocking beeswax hexagons. Bees will eat about 8 times the amount of honey in relation to the wax they produce, so you know this is an intense process for them. Wikipedia tells us that bees must fly about 150,000 miles — six times around the earth – to produce one little pound of beeswax. Wow.
Anyway, in the hexagonal comb, the queen lays eggs, which become larvae/brood (there are a lot of interchangeable terms in beekeeping), and the worker bees store pollen and honey. Pollen is harvested by the worker bees from flowers/plants and brought back to the hive in chaps, or saddlebags, on the bee’s legs. Pollen can be an incredible array of colors, from brilliant blue to quiet yellow.
Honey is not brought back from the plant. While working/pollinating the plant, the worker bee ingests the plant’s nectar. Bees have several stomachs, and one of them is called a “honey stomach.” The bee temporarily stores the nectar in its honey stomach, and … in a nutshell, special enzymes there begin to turn the nectar into honey. Back in the hive, the bees regurgitate this substance, evaporate it down with their wings, and poof! Honey! Well, it’s really not that simple, but you get the general idea.
The workers store the honey in the comb, and when a particular hexagon is full of honey, they go back over it and seal it off with more beeswax. Also, each hexagon that comprises the comb is tilted just slightly upwards, to keep the honey from running out while it’s liquid. All honey does eventually crystallize in the hive.
Isn’t all of that just amazing?
So when we harvest honey from the comb, we are necessarily harvesting quite a bit of beeswax, too. Beeswax has a myriad of uses, and I’ll get into that another time. For now, here’s a few pictures to show you how we render this wax into a valuable product:
Here’s raw beeswax – it has been spun in our Wax Spinner to separate it from the honey, but that’s all the processing that it’s seen. So, it has some detritus in it – there might be a little dirt, a few rocks, maybe a stick or two, a little bit of honey, some dead bees. Nothing harmful or earth shattering, but that natural debris needs to be removed from the wax before it can become candles, lipbalm, or furniture polish.
So we heat it up, to liquefy the wax and make it easy to strain the debris, which is lighter than the wax and will float, off the top. In our case, we heat it using Honeydew’s dad’s wax melter, that he made many moons ago.
This wax melter is essentially a heated, partially insulated tank with a baffle. A sheet of heat lamps is suspended above the tank, and between the heating element in the bottom and the lamps up top, the wax, which has a melting point of about 145 degrees Fahrenheit, melts. You don’t want to get it too hot, as the wax will darken and become discolored once you reach about 185 degrees.
Although this looks kind of gross, let me assure you that if heaven has a scent, it’s liquid beeswax. It is the smell of every flower in Glacier County, from the tiny glacier lily, high on Logan Pass, to the alfalfa growing tall in the fields near Shelby, to paintbrush and sunflowers and russian sage and tulips and lilacs and camus and on and on and on, topped off with a bottom note of sunshine and good times. When we’re rendering wax, the entire Warehome is saturated with this scent of summer, and we all walk around with goofy grins on our faces as a result.
We use a mesh strainer to separate the wax from the debris, and the wax strains back into the tank. The debris that comes out of beeswax is collectively referred to as “slumgum,” and it is sticky, nasty stuff. Uggh.
When we have a couple inches of liquid, strained beeswax, we drain that wax from the tank into large dishwashing bins. That results in about a 20# block of clean beeswax. At this point, one of two things happens: we market the blocks as “single filtered,” and sell them to soapmakers, candlemakers, and other crafters:
I take the blocks, remelt them, and continue filtering them to eventually pour into small “triple filtered” wax blocks for crafters who need “finished” beeswax, or to make my own candles, lipbalms, etc, with. Yes, that was a run-on sentence.
That’s my little wax melter, above.
And that’s how you take raw beeswax and turn it into a workable wax. No quiz, but I hope y’all learned something new about the bees this morning! Have a bee-autiful day. We’re off to put the first honey supers on the hives, so it’s going to be a GREAT day for us!
Head ’em out! Whoooooooooo.
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