Master the beekeeping task of correctly and safely collect your beeswax from your bee colonies, all while getting a few tips on what to do with your harvested beeswax.
The Backyard Beekeeper (Quarry, 2018) by Kim Flottum extends his expert advice on beekeeping, one of the fastest growing hobbies today. He walks beginners through setting up their colonies, choosing their bees, and the benefits of raising and caring for these buzzing bees. In the following excerpt, Flottum shares his favorite tips and secrets on harnessing and utilizing your colony’s beeswax.
If you extract your honey, you’ll have both honey and wax when you’re done. (If someone does it for you, his or her payment may actually be in wax or honey.) The wax is what is removed when you cut off the cappings from the honey-filled cells before you put the frames in the extractor. These cappings are usually collected in an uncapping tub that lets much of the honey drain off, separating the cappings wax from the adhering honey. (Now you see the wisdom of lining your uncapping tank with a mesh lining: It keeps the wax and lets the honey go.)
You have the choice of separating the remaining honey from the wax or simply discarding both. That may not be the best choice; there is a lot of honey clinging to the wax cappings, and the best beeswax is found in those wax cappings. If you choose to keep the wax, there are several ways to proceed.
The simplest method is to gather the corners of the mesh filter that lines the uncapping tank and shape it into a large bag. Tie the “bag” closed and suspend it over a clean bucket to let the honey drain for a few days in a bee-free area in a warm location. Add the honey to your crop and clean the wax in water. Once the wax is clean, freeze it to destroy any wax moths. Whatever you do with it, do it fairly soon so wax moths or small hive beetles cannot cause problems. (This wax can coat next year’s plastic foundation, as well.)
The terms decapping and uncapping mean the same thing: mechanically removing the beeswax coverings from the honey-filled cells on a frame. The coverings are called cappings. When melted, the beeswax is called cappings wax.
To melt the wax there’s one golden rule: never melt beeswax over an open flame. If the temperature of the melting beeswax rises past its melting point and boils over the sides of the heating container, that liquid wax, when it makes contact with the flame, becomes a torch, burning uncontrollably. All the wax will soon catch fire, and that burning wax will soon spread over your work surface, setting fire to anything flammable it comes in contact with. Also, wax vapors from overheated wax can explode if exposed to an open flame.
Beeswax can be melted safely over a double boiler. For the amount of wax you will generate with a few colonies you won’t need a huge rendering facility. (Rendering is the term that encompasses all aspects of transforming beeswax from the hive into a clean block of wax.)
If you can, melt wax in the driveway or another outside space where a few wax spills won’t matter and where the heat can dissipate. Also keep in mind that the smell of melting wax will attract your bees.
If you can’t set up outside, choose a spot in the garage or the basement. Never, ever do this in the kitchen. Spilled wax on the floor, stove, sink and sink drain, shoes, counter, or places you never imagined will give you grief for weeks.
If there’s no place to do this safely, drain the honey, wash the wax in a pail of water, drain it, bundle in a plastic bag, and put it in the freezer. Wait until a safe place is available or have somebody with experience do this for you, rather than do it dangerously.
In your safe-melting area, set up a workbench. Saw horses and a few planks, covered with newspapers or other disposable covering, work well. I use a leftover piece of wood siding cut to about 4-by-2.5-feet (1.2-by-0.8-meters). One end sits on a sawhorse while the other is propped up on unused bee boxes. It’s not pretty but it doesn’t need covering, and it works just fine as a temporary workbench for many tasks.
Before you begin melting raw, uncleaned wax, sort it by color. Burr and brace comb creates nearly white wax. Cappings wax is lemon colored. You may have darker wax from brood frames. Mixing colors creates dark wax. The darkness comes mostly from propolis and fine dirt particles in the wax that won’t filter out. Propolis also makes candles burn a bit erratically, can give lip balms an off flavor, and could make creams and lotions a darker tinge that you may not want. Dark wax is good for making soaps because of the colors, for household uses such as lubricating drawers and the like, and for polishes and waterproofing lotions. Save it for those uses.
Melt only darker wax in a solar melter. A solar wax melter removes wax from plastic foundation and separates the wax from the cocoons, wire, and propolis on brood combs. Also, the uncontrolled heat inside a wax melter may lead to darkening the wax, which is what happens when wax is heated to extreme, 200 degrees Fahrenheit (93 degrees Celcius) and higher.
Try to melt beeswax as few times as possible.
Use an electric heat source—not gas, not flame. If you are outside or away from a dedicated outlet use a heavy-duty grounded extension cord. I use a double burner hot plate. For more detail, see the section on melting wax for coating plastic frames—it’s the same setup. I can melt a lot of wax when I’m in my industrial mode. Containers should be made of aluminum, enameled steel, or stainless steel. Don’t use copper, iron, or nickel as they may impart a dark color to the wax. If in doubt, first test with a small amount of wax to see if the color changes.
If rough wax (from the wax melter, chunks of comb, old candles, and so forth) is being melted for the first time, I filter it as I’m pouring it from its melting container. Extraneous material, such as dead bees, cocoons, wood, and various unrecognizable objects can be removed with a coarse sieve. The next round of filtering can be through old sweatshirt material (fuzzy side up), milk filters, or even a few layers of paper towels. (Wax-soaked paper towels can be used later to light a smoker, after melting off most of the wax.) Tulle fabric also works well, as do a variety of other fabrics. The finer the mesh, the slower you have to pour. Increasing the surface area of the filter by using a larger catch pan speeds up the process, as does using a filter that concaves itself almost to the bottom of the receiving container. For small lots, I use a smaller water pan and a single burner.
When the bench is set up, the electricity source safely secured and grounded, the hot plate positioned, and the water pan(s) about half full of water, place your wax in the containers that are sitting in the water and turn on the heat.
Keep the heat on until the wax melts and becomes clear. (This may take a while.) Have your receiving container ready with the filter in place, either supported or held in place with paper clamps or rubber bands around the container. Make sure the filter is secure—the filter will become heavy with cooling wax.
When melting rough wax the first time, I heat it until it is clear and then pour it through a double layer of paper towels directly into a pan that I can reheat it in again. When finished, I put this second pan back in the hot water and heat it until clear. Then pour it again through the finest filter I have into a storage container. This way, there is no debris in the wax, and I can accomplish it all in one sitting.
You can heat wax in a pan with some water in it already. That pan sits directly in the other pan of water being directly heated. Wax is lighter than water and will float to the surface of the pan when it melts. When all the wax is melted, ladle it out into your receiving container. Most of the debris will settle out to the bottom of the container, and you can scrape off any debris that was not removed.
Place the frame close to the hot plate on the work surface, raising one end. Dip the sponge brush in the wax and squeeze the air out. Lift the sponge, tap a few times to release excess wax, and quickly bring the brush to the foundation in a sliding motion, moving across the surface immediately. Most of the cell edges have wax without the cell having wax in the bottom. Move fast enough so the wax doesn’t puddle in the bottom, but not so fast you don’t leave any wax on the edges.
1. First, to remove debris from the melted wax, pour through a sieve.
2. Melted wax is being poured through a paper towel filter to remove any remaining debris.
3. Brush the foundation in a sliding motion, moving across the surface immediately.
4. A pan of melted wax sitting in a water bath: Note the ring of wax cooling around the edge of the pan. This wax is destined to be brushed on a sheet of plastic foundation
5. A well-waxed plastic foundation—beeswax is on the edges and not the bottom of the cells. Bees will make good comb with this.
You can make a wax melter or purchase one as a kit from suppliers. Plans abound on the internet and they are fairly easy to build. Paint the outside and inside black (some say paint the inside white, but I’ve found black works better when using a thick plastic covering), make sure the cover is tight or you will have bees in it all the time, and place it so it gets as much light as possible all day. Cover the top with corrugated plastic rather than glass, and make the metal tray that the frames and wax chunks sit on as large as possible. Put in a large catch pan and have two or three—this may be the pan you put in your wax melting pot on the hot plate so make sure it’s aluminum or stainless. If you get serious about this tool, make it big (I’ve seen homemade boxes that use a regular storm door with windows for the top), make the pan slope between 30 and 35 degrees so the melted wax moves away from the frames and other refuse fairly fast. If you can, put a screen on the opening at the bottom of the tray to catch at least some of the bigger chunks of impurities that are in the wax—dead bees, chunks of old comb, pieces of wood will all be screened out.
Warning: Those all-plastic frame/foundation units will be ruined in a wax melter. Some styles of wooden frames with plastic foundation will twist and bow, others won’t at all. Be careful with your frames with plastic foundation until you know how they will react to the heat.
When the wax has melted, it’s ready to pour—but what do you pour it into? Storing wax in your melting pans isn’t a practical option. Suppliers sell special wax pans. After these pans are partially filled with hot wax and the wax cools, the solid block of wax slips right out. Empty, clean, paper or plastic milk containers work well, as does any container that can withstand the heat of melted wax. If in doubt, test the container with a small amount of melted wax first.
• Beeswax melts at about 145 degrees Fahrenheit (62.8 degrees Celsius). This temperature will vary a bit, depending on air temperature and amount of debris in the wax.
• Density is about 0.96, whereas water is 1.0, so wax will float on water.
• Cappings wax, when cool, will be a soft lemon yellow color. Wax from old frames and bits of burr comb will be darker and will contain melted-in materials such as propolis. Do not mix cappings wax and old wax.
• Wipe up fresh spills with paper towels.
• Scrape up cooled drips and dribbles with a sharp-edged tool, such as a single-edged razor blade.
• To remove small spills and the thin film that remains after wiping and scraping, use a petroleum solvent specially made for wax removal available at most stores that sell candles. A final rinse with hot, soapy water will finish the job.
• When you mix softened tap water with melted beeswax, the wax and water react, resulting in mushy wax that is unfit for anything. Don’t use your tap water. Bottled water or even rainwater is preferred. If you are melting a lot of wax and using a lot of water, you’ll want to explore another melting method—the solar wax melter or double boiler.
There are a multitude of resources on the internet and in books and magazines for making candles, lotions, and potions using your beeswax, honey, and even propolis. For this book, we chose to focus on the proper care, feeding, and management of your colony for the first year or so. There is a whole world waiting if you choose to make and use any of the products your bees produce.
Reprinted with Permission from The Backyard Beekeeper by Kim Flottum and published by Quary, 2018.