Thursday, April 16, 2009

Rendering beeswax

If you plan to keep bees in a top-bar hive, you will need some beeswax to draw a guideline down the middle of each bar. In the wild, bees build their comb any which way (but always plumb), while in a hive you want the combs straight on each bar so you can lift them out. Beeswax is also nice for making candles, salve and lip balm, among other things.

You can buy it, of course, but if you happen to have some comb, you can melt it down yourself and be sure it is pure. I found some sensible, step-by-step instructions here. You need a couple big pots, some screening, a waxed carton and knee-high nylons. Plus a bungie cord for securing the screen and something to stir with. Do not use pots or a spoon that you ever intend to use for cooking again. I got some super-cheap pots at Big Lots and used a gardening stake for a stirrer.
First you add water to the comb. You want a goodly proportion of water to comb, but not so much that there's any risk of the pot bubbling over and covering your stove with wax. I'm pretty sure that would be a really bad thing.
Bring the wax to a boil and let it boil for 30 minutes. You probably don't really need to stir it, but you will anyway, just to monitor its progress. Meanwhile, prep another pot outside with the screening and bungie cord.

I did not have an assistant to photograph the pouring, so you'll just have to imagine it. When I was done, I had this:
A pot of wax suspended in water and a pile of slumgum.

Yes, slumgum. Isn't that a great word? It's all the detritus from the comb that isn't wax. You don't want to think too hard about that. If you are processing mostly honeycomb, you will not get a lot of it.

It still has some wax in it, so it makes a good firestarter. I made slumgum patties (briquettes?) using a cut-up paper towel roll – my own invention, thank you very much.
I tested one after a few days of drying. I set it on a slice of birch in the chimenea. It took a few tries to get it lit (best to flame it underneath), but then it burned long and steadily despite there being a fairly stiff breeze trying to put it out.
Meanwhile, after sitting overnight, the pot of wax and water separated, with the wax floating on the top. It still had some sediment on the underside, which I rubbed off as much as possible in the water. The wax pieces went into a pot.
I discovered in this process that you really want to have a much smaller pot for the second melting, especially if the air is cold. Beeswax melts at about 145 degrees F, but quickly sets up again and clings to the pot as you're pouring it, so a smaller pot is ideal. You melt the wax over very low heat. For the second batch I found a heavy aluminum one at Goodwill with a pouring spout.

And I should issue a warning here: Beeswax is highly inflammable. NEVER LEAVE MELTING WAX UNATTENDED.
Pour the melted wax through knee-high pantyhose into a waxed container such as a milk carton. I used a half-gallon carton the first time, and a quart one the second. Let it cool and harden, then peel away the carton.

VoilĂ ! Pure, organic beeswax.
It smells really nice, and should be enough for my needs. You'll notice that there's not a lot of it. Yes, rendering that entire log full of comb yielded just this much wax (and a whole lot of slumgum). It's amazing how bees have evolved to produce this stuff and use it so efficiently.


  1. this is so cool - how I wish I had some of that beeswax...

  2. WOW! that is amazing. thanks for showing us the process! I always wondered how the beeswax was collected from the bees...
    what will you do with your wax now?
    that is such a pretty golden/yellow color! :o)

  3. That is really fascinating. I wish I could learn something like this. Or wine-making.

  4. That is AWESOME! So cool :) What are you planning to do with the wax? I love what you're doing. I wonder if we should do a honey tasting some time? I'm fascinated. We may be up for another snb next week. Stay tuned! xxoo

  5. There is no end to the fascination of this bee thing!

  6. I've been reading your blog through RSS feed for a little while and always love your bee / wax / honey posts. So informative and interesting! And now I know why Burt's Bees products are so expensive. Not much wax for lots of work!

  7. So you won't be selling it, then, if that's all your work produced. Probably a good move.

    Because I could turn that wax into some seriously awesome lip balm, if'n I was allowed. :) But I don't think I could afford it, after seeing how much work it takes to get it.

  8. DB, I'd send you some, but that's all I've got!

    Kim, I will use it for coating the top bars in the beehive, from which the bees will build their honeycomb. I think the color comes from pollen! So cheery.

    DG, I'll be you could apprentice yourself to some winemaker ... This stuff is not all that hard. Everything I've learned about bees I've learned online, save for the few tidbits from bee club.

    Jen, it'll be for beekeeping! I may be able to replenish some of it next year, if I do get bees and they actually survive. Honey tasting! That's a good idea. I'll have to look out for some different varieties. Another snb would be fun. Y'all could come down here, too.

    Kathi, it's the hobby that never ends!

    Thanks, Steph! I was thinking about Burt's Bees, as a matter of fact, when I was doing this. I wonder where they get their wax.

    Amy, I would sell it if I had more than that! But I have no idea if/when I'll be able to get any more in appreciable amounts.

  9. My favorite part of this wonderful story is the slumgum. And oh yes, I DO want to think about it. I like leftovers of all sorts. There's always an interesting story behind a leftover. TAren't paper towel rolls wonderful? So many uses.

  10. BRILLIANT move on those slumgum firestarters. Slumgum firestarters—sounds like the name of a fab band.