There has been much noise about the possible disappearance of the honey bee in parts of the United States, and the hoopla is certainly for good reason. The bee, as the saying goes, is busy — being an essential cog in the natural cycle of life’s growth and decay. The honey bee is an industrious multi-tasker whose absence would most certainly be missed. Among their indispensable contributions to the environment is a remarkably useful byproduct that many take for granted — beeswax.
Female worker bees produce wax from the glands on their abdomens. They use the wax to build honeycomb cells where they house pollen, honey and baby bees — creating a kind of nursery and cafeteria in one. That said, a honeycomb is not a quick thing to build. Bees are known to fly over 150,000 miles (that’s equivalent to six times around the globe) to gather enough pollen for just one pound of wax.
Beeswax was widely used in the ancient world. 3,500 years ago, the Egyptians manufactured the world’s first wax candles and figurines. They also used beeswax as a sealant for their ships. In ancient Rome, it was so valuable that some occupied nations paid their fees and taxes in the valuable beeswax. Up until the Middle Ages, beeswax helped in one of the earliest forms of mobile communication. Wooden plates were covered with a thin layer of wax and the message traced into it.
Today, beeswax is considered a premium ingredient for a variety of products. It is highly regarded for smooth leather and wood restoration, working simultaneously to waterproof and polish surfaces. Mixing pure beeswax with linseed oil yields an incredible wood furniture polish.
By far, cosmetics and pharmaceutical companies are the biggest buyers of beeswax, accounting for 60 percent of the market. Beeswax helps to stabilize lotions and creams by increasing their capacity to hold water. Churches use beeswax candles because they burn longer and drip far less than typical paraffin candles.
Some high-end cheese manufacturers still dip their cheese in beeswax before aging which also serves as the packaging. Unfortunately, most major cheese brands have switched to plastic which sometimes leaves an unpleasant taste. This scamorza has a string tied around it from which it is dipped in beeswax.
Pure beeswax is usually sold in solid cakes or chips and useful to have on hand — the classic restoration show ‘This Old House’ lists 10 practical uses of beeswax around the home. So whether you are enjoying a beeswax candle-lit dinner or admiring a shiny red apple, remember the honey worker bees and all their indispensable contributions to world around us.
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Leading image: Honeycomb with eggs at the bottom of each cell. (Photo from commons.wikimedia.org)