Why and How do Bees Make Wax?

What is beeswax? 

Made primarily from chemical compounds that comprise fatty acids as well as long-chain alcohols, beeswax is a malleable substance mostly produced by honey bees. At room temperature, the wax is solid but soft, and it is easy to melt to a liquid to make into various materials. Freshly made beeswax is very pale in colour, often whitish yellow. As the wax ages it turns into a deep golden yellow, but colours may vary on the region and its flowers that the bees collect food from, as well as the purity of the wax. 

bee wax
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Why do bees make beeswax? 

Beeswax is used to make the comb structures. The wax creates a strong structure that can be reused. The combs used for laying eggs and storing honey will be thoroughly cleaned after each use and then reused as needed. Some species of bees have single-use nests, and after the larvae emerge they are no longer used. Honey bees can cut down on the energy spent building hives with their reusable beeswax cells, and building more comb only when the space is needed. 

Honey bees also combine the wax with exudates from coniferous tree buds to make a tough, resinous material known as propolis. Also called bee glue, workers use propolis to seal cracks in the hive to insulate and waterproof it. This gives them extra layers of protection from invaders and cold temperatures. 

How do they produce wax? 

The honey bee has eight particular glands in their abdomen that leak out a fatty substance. As soon as this substance is exposed to air and leaves the warm bodies of the worker bees, it hardens into tiny scales. These scales are wax, and workers bees will pick up the flakes and put them to use by sticking them together and building bits of comb. The wax that comes off the bees’ bodies is completely translucent at first. 

Are candles made from beeswax? 

Beeswax candles have been produced for centuries, with the oldest existing beeswax candles dated from the 6th century Germany. Originally candles were made from animal fats, but the smell was often very unpleasant. Beeswax candles are purported to burn brighter and for 

longer periods of time without stench. Unfortunately for the common people, the candles were very expensive and were primarily made for the rich and the church. 

What uses are there for beeswax? 

The malleable texture and fatty composition of beeswax makes it an excellent substance for a variety of uses including cosmetics, polishes, vehicle and surface waxes, lip balms and hand creams, and food wraps. It is also edible and is used as a food additive. Historically it been known to be used for dental fillings, paintings, and to strengthen sewing threads and musical instruments. 

Do all bees make beeswax? 

Although honey bees are infamous for their wax, other species such as bumblebees make a similar substance known as cerumen which is also the medical term for earwax. Their wax is not as plentiful or as refined as honey bee wax, and with bumblebees’ tendency to burrow underground it is much more difficult to harvest.