Honey bees make wax, which makes them rather special because humans like to use beeswax for a variety of purposes.
One of Britain’s oldest livery companies is the Worshipful Company of Wax Chandlers. On record in the early 1300s it gained its Royal Charter in 1484.
“The business of a Wax Chandler was the preparation, making and sale of beeswax and beeswax products. Wax Chandlery included torches, images, wax for seals, medical uses and candles. Before the Reformation, acts of devotion to speed souls through Purgatory required vast quantities of beeswax for candles, tapers and images. Medieval trade relied on wax seals to attest contracts and the like and wax coated writing tablets were the BlackBerries of the time.” (source: http://www.waxchandlers.org.uk/about-us/index.php )
Young honey bees between 12 and 16 days old have four pairs of active wax glands on the undersides of their abdomens. These produce tiny wax scales that are collected, chewed by other bees to soften, and then moulded into honey comb – which is the basis for the honey bees’ nest. Into this comb are laid eggs, which develop into mature bees. It’s where honey and pollen are stored.
The nest temperature needs to be between 33° and 36 °C for young bees to successfully produce wax and it’s estimated that they need to eat about eight times as much honey by mass, so foraging workers will need to fly around 150,000 miles for their youngsters to produce a pound of beeswax.
Beekeepers remove old and blackened-with-age combs from their colonies and carefully save cappings removed from sealed cells when harvesting honey. The two types of wax are usually kept separate, with the almost white cappings kept for competition (Honey Shows) or for special candles and the darker coloured wax from older comb sometimes returned to the bees as ‘starter strips’ for building new comb.
Wax has to be cleaned before it can be used. Candles, for example, will spit and splutter if the wax contains impurities and beeswax used in screen printing or batik has to be free of impurities that might stain fabrics.
In our part of the country we wash all our wax in rainwater, which contains no traces of limescale that can spoil the precious wax. The wax is carefully and gently melted, either in a warming cabinet or in a water bath (also rainwater), and filtered several times through layers of muslin or coffee filters to remove all traces of impurities – particles of larval cocoons, for example – before it can be used.
Once the wax is clean it can be used to make candles (either dipped or in moulds), a variety of shades of wax blocks for woodworkers, polishes, and other products. Cosmetics are rather specialised, and need to be tested for safety before being marketed to the customer.
Candles and other beeswax products are expensive regardless of where in the world you are, and is one reason why beekeeping can help rural communities in developing countries. Charities such as ‘Bees Abroad’ and ‘Bees for Development’ take beekeeping into communities and help struggling families escape the poverty trap because a season’s honey and wax can go a long way towards paying next year’s school fees.