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Adulterated Honey & Beeswax


Article by: Pete Bower
Published by: The Gauteng Smallholder Magazine

Publisher Pete Bower writes on the common practice of mixing corn syrup with honey and paraffin wax with beeswax.

Beekeeping, as beekeepers know well, is a combination of art, science and jolly hard work. Done well, there’s a decent income to be had from harvesting the products of the beehive. Done badly, beekeeping is a waste of time and money at best, and damaging to the bees at worst. And for consumers and the general public, who understand neither the needs of the bees nor the economics of the craft, the general view is that everything related to bees is too expensive.

When they come across a “cheap” bottle of honey on their supermarket shelves they often don’t stop to think that there could be some reason, not related to the bees but more likely related to some kind of commercial skulduggery, that makes it cheaper than every other bottle on the shelf. But to be fair to consumers, there is a slowly growing awareness that unscrupulous honey packers (the bees, after all, are the producers) make their precious natural resource go further by mixing it with golden corn syrup. Same same, but different.

Some beekeeping nations are more guilty than others of this practice and the legislated labelling requirements for retailed honey are easily “interpretable,” particularly in a country such as South Africa where the consumer demand for honey far exceeds the national harvest. Hence labels that say “Countries of origin:

South Africa and/or Uruguay and/or Zambia and/or China”, for example. For, while it may not be that the South African packer is himself mixing corn syrup with his honey before bottling it, who’s to say that the “and/or” material he bought from a dealer in a, ahem, less ethical country might not have been adulterated before shipping?

But if you think the honey industry is open to adulteration, there’s another product in the beekeeping world that faces adulteration which, some beekeepers and scientists say, could be far more damaging to the industry in the long term. For, if honey demand outstrips supply, demand for beeswax also far outstrips supply. Beeswax, of course, is a vital component in the lifecycle of the bee colony in that it is built up by the bees and formed into honeycomb, in which the queen bee lays her eggs, and in which nectar is stored and converted into honey. In a naturally-occurring bee colony the bees themselves construct the comb, a painstaking task to make the intricate but surprisingly robust structure, that they will, with repair and maintenance, continue to use for many seasons.

In a commercial hive such as are used by beekeepers, the life-cycle of the bees is helped along a little by the beekeeper in that the removable frames in the hive are fitted with starter strips, or even full sheets, of rolled beeswax, each a couple of millimetres thick, on both sides of which the sixsided pattern of the honeycomb is embossed to help the bees on their way with their construction.

But beeswax is not only used in hives as foundation sheets or strips. It is also sought after in many commercial and consumer industries, for example in high-grade furniture polish, cosmetics etc. Small wonder, then, that demand far outstrips supply. So, how can one make one’s precious beeswax, with its distinctive smell and feel, go further? Exactly like with honey, which is mixed with corn syrup, unscrupulous (some would say) manufacturers mix raw paraffin wax (a byproduct of the petroleum refining industry) with their beeswax.

If you’ve ever made candles you will know paraffin wax as the big blocks of slightly translucent white material that one buys, usually from Sasol, breaks up, melts and adds colouring and aromatics to, before pouring the resultant hot liquid into moulds to set. Is the practice of adulterating beeswax safe? What effect does it have on the bees, in the short term? Or in the longterm? Proponents of the practice say that it is necessary if one is to help the bees along, because there’s a chronic shortage of the natural stuff.

Detractors of the practice say, firstly, that chemically, the two waxes are different. That this is so is easy to see, they say. Mix the two together when in a fully molten state and allow the liquid to stand and cool without stirring and they will separate out into two distinct bands, one translucent white and the other yellow. For the two substances have different specific gravities, quite apart from their chemical compositions. Whether the practice of using mixed sheets in the hive is safe or not, the fact is: nobody really knows. Even the most knowledgeable scientists and beekeepers don’t actually know what natural instincts and processes are at work to keep a hive functioning and while hundreds of studies have been done over the years to analyse the chemical makeup of bee-related products, nobody really knows the relationships that exist between the individual little insects and the surfaces or substances on which they build and with which they interact.

And, say opponents to the idea of mixed beeswax in the hives, given the declining populations of bees worldwide, because of chemical pollution, habitat destruction, overwork, predation by other insects and disease, is it worth further risking the health and survival of the species by using adulterated sheets in the hive?

The Northern Beekeepers Association caters for beekeepers around Pretoria. Call Riekie on 082 972-1889 The Southern Beekeepers Association (“Southerns”) covers beekeepers in Johannesburg, West Rand and southern Gauteng. Email Lantz at info@beekeepers.co.za

The Eastern Highveld Beekeepers Association (“Easterns”) caters for beekeepers on the East Rand, as well as members in Mpumalanga. Call Mike on 083 430-8707 for details.

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