I don’t care much for bees, mostly because of an unfortunate incident involving a swing set and a sting when I was six-years-old. As much as I’ve tried to avoid these buzzy creatures, a bit of research reveals that bees are an important part of my daily living and can be found in my kitchen, my lip balm… even in my favorite soap. And I’m not just talking about honey.

We (I) tend to think of honey as the most important product from the beehive. But beeswax, that “other” gold, turns out to be just as valuable. Without it, we wouldn’t have honey at all, and the world wouldn’t be nearly as sweet.

I spoke with farmer and bee expert, Meg Paska, to find out why we can find beeswax in so many household products. In the middle of her daily chores on the farm, she explained, a little breathlessly, that beeswax firms up soft soaps to make them tougher on working hands and makes soap and other products last longer. It’s also an effective wax you can use to seal up a chipped corner on a desk or even on a cutting board and is also found in some furniture polish like Daddy Van’s.

Meg Paska inspects a beekeeping frame. Image courtesy of Meg Paska.

Meg has had a lot of experience with bees and makes her own honey and beeswax products. “I grew up in Baltimore and I had always been a gardener, that’s how I got started with bees. I started noticing that I hadn’t really seen honeybees around as much as I remembered seeing them, and I knew a bee would have to visit if I wanted my zucchini to grow better. So I took a course and decided to jump in.”

Inside the Hive

From what Meg tells me, beeswax serves as the foundation for everything that goes on inside the hive. It’s how honeycombs are made and it’s how the bee brood grows up (they live there until they’re strong enough to emerge). Beeswax is like the brick foundation for a building. It creates storage cells (for pollen). It’s basically a vault for honey. And it’s rare! A hive with a hundred pounds of honey only carries about a pound and a half of wax. Only honeybees between 10- and 12-days-old can make the wax.

“Female worker honeybees only have the ability to produce the substance for the span of about a week,” Meg says. “The wax is secreted in sheets from glands on the underside of the abdomen and molded with the bee’s mandibles to take on the hexagonal cell shape we all recognize.”

As the wax comes in contact with air, it hardens. The worker bee then chews the secreted scales, which makes them turn opaque.

Scraping to open up the honeycomb. Image credit: Sigfrid Lundberg.

“The slight difference in color from one beeswax to another usually has to do with how much that wax has been used, and the landscape. Beeswax gets its yellow color from pollen. A bee that collected pollen from a field of dandelions, for example, may create a very bright yellow wax because they will have the pollen all over them. Others will use the wax as a spot to store brood before filling the comb with honey. The type of wax that’s had a lot of use will appear to have a darker, browner patina.” It’s not a bad thing, it just tends to be a little harder and flakier, but still strong.

Surprisingly, there are no “grades” of beeswax to distinguish between higher and lower quality waxes. “I don’t know any beekeepers who grade their wax,” Meg says. “But if you wanted a higher quality wax, it’s best to purchase from a treatment-free facility, one that doesn’t use fungicides or other chemicals that would permeate the wax. A commercial beekeeper that doesn’t specify is probably a lower quality.”

There’s been talk, recently, about this “treatment” problem among beekeepers. Honeybees have been disappearing for decades, and recent speculation has been about pesticides. When honeybees bring back pollen containing pesticide, it permeates the honey and makes the bee more susceptible to parasites and death. Beekeepers are also facing colony collapse issues, where bees just don’t return to their hives as well as mite infestations. All the more reason to appreciate the artisan qualities of beeswax products.

Beeswax candles, available here from Hudson Made.

Little can compare to the warm honey-like scent of a burning beeswax candle but the process of creating wax is biologically expensive for bees. For humans, on the other hand, procuring beeswax from a hive is not very labor intensive at all. This is how it works: When you extract honey, the cappings that you slice off represent your major wax harvest for the year. You’ll probably get one or two pounds of wax for every 100 pounds of honey that you harvest. This wax can be cleaned and melted down for all kinds of uses. You basically just let gravity drain honey from the cappings, then place them in a pail of water and wash them. Then you remelt, rewash, and let it harden. There are dozens of places in the New York/Hudson Valley area offering classes on organic beekeeping where you can learn all about this. You can find out more about seasonal class offerings at the HoneybeeLives Apiary in the Hudson Valley or at Brooklyn Grange urban organic farm.

Nucs (nuclear colonies) on the rooftop apiary of Brooklyn Grange. Image courtesy of Meg Paska.

Beeswax candles never smoke or sputter and also produce a brilliant flame. It can also be found in soaps and bath products. Its protective and antibacterial properties, long-lasting qualities and delicate, natural scent make it a useful soap for the kitchen. Hudson Made is developing its own blend of beeswax scullery soap just for this purpose, which will be available this fall.

If you’re not convinced of beeswax’s value yet, take note that the U.S. imports as much beeswax as we produce, placing a continuous and increasing demand on this intriguing natural product. Whether you enjoy the warm glow of a beeswax candle in your home or a pungently preserved aged cheese sealed in beeswax, remember the work bees have done to create this resource. It might not take the sting out, but it’s a sure sign that we should let bees be.

Can’t get enough beeswax? Check out these products from Hudson Made.

Pair of Natural Beeswax Candles Bee by Rose-Lynn Fisher Grey Atwood’s Jaundice Bitters Beeswax Candle


Cass Daubenspeck is a culture and lifestyle writer based in Brooklyn. She lives for good coffee, good whiskey, and a rainy Sunday morning. She interviews people about their weekend routines at sundayroutine.com. Twitter: @missprotestalot