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Having seen how to harvest honey from your beehives, there are more treasures awaiting you.
Honey gets all the good PR, since everyone loves the stuff! But the comb in which that honey is stored and the caps on cells used to retain it are made of beeswax. With a little effort it's possible to extract this beautiful substance that can be used in so many creative ways.
Before we look at how beeswax is created and how to collect it from your hives, it's worth reflecting on the considerable number of ways in which it can be used. Beeswax is an incredibly versatile substance, with uses in food preparation, crafts and much more. Here is a small list of ways in which we use beeswax:
The list goes on and beekeepers harvest beeswax for these and many other reasons.
First, a quick recap on how bees create beeswax. Worker bees have eight pairs of wax glands under the abdomen, which produce tiny wax scales. The process of making comb involves the worker taking one of these wax scales, moving it to her front legs and mixing it with saliva. This creates wax that is useful as a building material, namely for building comb.
The utility and value we find in beeswax comes from its unique properties. These are evident in a substance that, apart from being created through a fascinating process, almost seems designed to be for our own benefit, though it is not, of course.
So these are the characteristics of beeswax. Let's look at some of the methods for extracting it from our hives and frames.
We will assume relatively small amounts of wax are to be extracted i.e. this isn't a commercial operation. Let's look first at a simple process available to anyone with some simple tools in the kitchen.
Step one is to gather your wax. The cappings you gathered when harvesting honey are some of the best beeswax you can find! We place these in a cheesecloth. Also, if you are using foundationless frames then the comb is there for you, assuming you decide not to place it back in your hive. If you plan to use it to extract beeswax, then just break it into small pieces and place in another piece of cheesecloth.
At this point, you hopefully have plenty of beeswax, but it's mixed in with all sorts of other gunk you don't need. Let's fix that.
Place the beeswax-containing cheesecloth in a simmering saucepan of water. Gently press down to split up the larger chunks, which speeds things up a little as the beeswax melts.
Bring the water to a boil and when you have melted the beeswax in the water, squeeze out and remove the cheesecloth. This leaves behind "wax water".
Pour that into a container and let it solidify, as it cools. The wax will rise to the top, with dirty water underneath. The solid layer on top is wax but is still quite dirty.
Take the solid wax cake that formed on the top of the water and once again melt it, this time in a double boiler. This creates a liquid which you can run through a filter again while still hot.
At this point, you have beautiful, clean and melted wax. Pour into the mold of your choice and you are done.
Here's a delightful video that illustrates one way to extract and use beeswax.
While the method described above works very well, it is also a multi-stage process and does tend to leave a rather strong aroma of beeswax in the kitchen (though it is quite pleasant). An alternative method that is commonly used is a solar max melter.
As the name implies, this simply uses the sun's rays to create a very hot space in which the wax will melt and drain. This neat idea works very well. A solar wax melter is available from the PerfectBee Store, although many beekeepers make their own too.
Here is a video that illustrates the use of a solar wax melter.
Finally, for a high end - and higher price - solution, electric wax melters are available. These are extremely convenient and allow the placement of frames inside, from which the wax is melted and subsequently drained.