Published by: The Gauteng Smallholder Magazine
Where does beeswax come from? And how is beeswax produced? Simply put, it comes from the bodies of bees.
The bees must consume honey to generate heat as they cluster together and hang in a curtain form to build the wax comb called honeycomb, but, is used by the bees for a number of tasks apart from storing honey.
The bees join their larger back legs as they hang to form the evenly shaped six-sided module of exactly equal size of every cell of comb they build. The wax is secreted in liquid form at a temperature of 38 C from eight cells on the o underside of the bees’ abdomens. By slightly fanning their wings the liquid wax is cooled and solidifies into minute size flakes about the size of small bread crumbs.
These flakes are then passed around to the builder bees and with their free arm-like legs these bees manipulate the flakes and form the cells. Starting from an anchor point, which in a man-made hive is usually a strip of starter wax affixed to the top of a frame in the hive, they start with the midrib, on to which at opposite sides they build the rows of cells back-to-back to each other. Downwards they proceed to eventually form a comb.
When this first comb is about 80mm long, they start a second comb on the other side of this first one, exactly 32mm apart center-to-center, first with the starter midrib and then the superstructure and so on and on until they have formed six or eight combs that are exactly 23mm wide.
The six-sided cells fit and interlock in such a way to form an overall strong structure or storage scaffold. The material weight of a structure of wax comb measuring 100mm x100mm would be about 25grams and that can support a weight of capped honeycomb of 500 to 600 grams.
These cells are also used by the bees to rear their young, as well as to store honey and pollen. A strong swarm in a good nectar foraging area could build 20 000 cells as a brood-rearing area. This could be used five to six times during the spring and summer breeding season of a year. A further 80 000 cells might be made to store 20 kg of honey made from spring to the end of the autumn season. The bees in such a hive will have produced approximately one kilogram of wax to build all these cells.
It is remarkable to note that all this cell-building takes place in the darkness of a beehive. There are no architects, civil engineers, no managers or supervisors, no onlookers, no one getting into another’s way, no tea or lunch breaks, no public holidays, no working to the clock (the work stops when the job is complete) and the beauty of the work is that one does not have to stand over them and teach them how the job must be done.
The beekeeper, in harvesting honey from a hive, provides space for the next honey crop to be made. Otherwise, there will be no work for the bees. Should he neglect to create this space, the bees become idle and idle bees are aggressive bees.
So, ideally, in a very gentle way he removes the honey and comb, hardly disturbing the bees, and replaces all the honey loaded frames with empty wax drawn combs. The bees set about repairing the damaged cells from the extracting operation, clean out any debris left in the cells and start storing honey for the next crop.
In the honey house the honey loaded frames are uncapped, the honey extracted by centrifugal force in an extractor, and the wax cappings are released of the adhering honey, washed and rendered into wax blocks, taking care not to mix prized light wax with dark wax. The light wax is sought-after by the cosmetic trade and fetches good prices per kilogram.
The darker wax is exchanged by the beekeeper for rolled foundation wax which he reuses in his brood frames as new frames in his beehives. Every morsel of wax is collected and traded either for sale at good prices or retained in the beekeeping fraternity for reuse.
As there is always a shortage of wax ~ especially in times of drought ~ it is best for beekeepers to trade their wax for new foundation sheets.
Wanna be a beekeeper?
Smallholders who are interested in keeping bees have access to assistance, advice and support from one of three beekeepers associations in the province. All three associations welcome new beekeepers to their regular meetings and have active Facebook pages to keep members abreast of developments.
The Northern Beekeepers Association (known as “Northerns”) meets as a rule around Pretoria and caters for beekeepers around Pretoria.
For details call Riekie on 082 972-1889.
The Southern Beekeepers Association (“Southerns”) covers beekeepers in the Johannesburg, West Rand and southern Gauteng. Email Lantz at firstname.lastname@example.org for details.
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.