What’s the buzz?
Ever wondered where beeswax comes from? It’s sort of like bee dandruff, produced by glands under the bee’s abdominal plates, that falls off in glassy little flakes. When heated to about 90° F (the temperature of the hive) and chewed by the bees, it becomes soft enough to be molded into the honeycomb, the hive’s honey-storage facility. The flakes are produced by young worker bees who are hivebound for the first weeks of their lives. When they get old enough to fly, the wax-producing glands become inactive.
Having too much honey and too little storage space is what stimulates the production of wax. Here’s how it works: When the field bees unload nectar into the honey-storage “stomachs” of the inside bees, the nectar doesn’t normally stay there very long—it gets loaded into empty cells in the honeycomb. But what if there aren’t enough storage cells? When the worker bee’s stomach is full, its wax glands are stimulated. The bees go into overdrive, dropping flakes all over the place. The presence of the flakes stimulates other bees to pick them up and start forming them into cell walls, which continues until there’s enough storage space again.
Sure, beeswax is useful to bees, but it also has a long history as humanity’s first plastic. It’s been used for sculpting metal, conditioning the strings for bows and crossbows, sealing and lubricating guns and musket balls, providing light by burning, and even filling cavities in emergency dentistry. Though worldwide beeswax production is fairly low today—only about 10,000 tons a year—beeswax is still widely used. You know that beeswax is used in candles and maybe in cosmetics and furniture polish, but how about these uses?
- As chewing gum
- As polish for premium candies, including Jelly Bellies and Haribo Gummi Bears
- Mixed with pine pitch and sawdust, as “cutler’s resin,” used by knife makers to attach blades firmly into handles
- As a sealing coat for cast metals
- Mixed with petroleum jelly as the main ingredient in “bone wax,” smeared by surgeons to control bleeding from bone surfaces during reconstructive surgery
- As an ingredient in lip balm, mustache wax, shoe polish, and premium crayons
- As a binder that holds together reeds on oboes, bassoons, and accordions
- As a handyman’s friend, fixing squeaks, freeing sticky drawers, lubricating screws and locking them in place
- In the molded French cakes called canelles, as a thin layer that gives a glossy, dark crust
- As the sculpted form for the ancient “lost wax” casting process. It’s coated with layers of clay and fired in a kiln. The wax burns away, leaving a mold into which bronze can be poured.
- As a coating to preserve cheese as it ages
- As a whip coating. When some whip makers shifted from rawhide to cheaper, more durable nylon, customers complained that the weight wasn’t quite right. It turned out that dipping the nylon in beeswax added just the right amount of heft.
- As the etched coating on early “wax” phonograph records
- As a chicken-plucker’s plucking aid. They discovered that floating a layer of molten wax on top of boiling water makes the feathers stick together so they can be removed in a large clumps instead of as a snowstorm of loose feathers.
This article was originally published in Uncle John’s Perpetually Pleasing Bathroom Reader.