The bees are all tucked in for the winter, which leaves time to do those little chores, like render the beeswax. The wax from my hives soon becomes a part of the salves and lip balms I make and sell. I wouldn’t make these with other wax, because I know the wax from my hives comes from hives in which no chemicals nor antibiotics are used.
Wax is a sponge. It will absorb any chemical that is placed in the hive. That’s one of the problems now in frames from hard chemical operations: the residues have built up over the years so many of the frames in those bee yards have multiple chemicals embedded in them. But that’s another story that was covered by Jennifer Berry in Bee Culture Magazine back in 2009.
My beeswax comes from three places: 1) Cappings wax: the wax that is cut off the front of each honey frame before extraction. 2) Drained slum gum : an awful word for the wax that float to the top of the buckets after extraction. This is labeled off prior to bottling the honey. 3) Comb that the bees sometimes build in their top collar, which has a top entrance. Usually a piece of burlap cloth stops them building, but some hives just see it as a place to free-form build. (I’ve only got a picture of the comb, because I didn’t think about the blog until I was already working.)
I have a very low-tech method of beeswax rendering. Where larger operations have a very nice, machine , and bee operations in warm areas have wonderful solar melters ( No Public Domain photos to be had for these).
I have my husband’s old 4-gallon capacity jam pot. He doesn’t mind, he’s too busy making furniture and bee gear to make jam – that is a bit sad, he made good jam.
To begin, I place about an inch of water into the bottom of the pot. The pot is placed over a low heat on the shop burners. Wax is slowly added to the water, which I stir with a thin piece of clean wood. It’s important to make sure that the melting wax/water mix does not come to a boil.
Please note, beeswax is very flammable. I keep a fire extinguisher near by although I’ve never had to use it. If you render wax it is very important to never walk away from the stove when wax is being melted. This year I had not only the extinguisher, but I also had a supervisor watching my every move: Aggie, my 18 years old barn cat (she now directs the kittens).
I render wax in a special room in the barn we call the “kitchen.” It’s where I also make pollen subsitute, syrups, and, in hard years, bee candy. Wax rendering can be very messy.
It’s not only messy, but it’s a pretty ugly process as well. There is propolis, bee cocoons, wax moth cocoons and silk, and even little wax moth larva that have been born while the comb wax has been hanging in bags through the year. Cappings wax is pretty clear, but the slum gum adds bits of honey that still adheres to it into the mix. It never ceases to amaze me that this glop will soon be a clean pillar of wax.
As the wax melts, all of these things and more will float to the top. This is skimmed off using a spoon. When all the wax is melted and debris cleared from the top of the pot, it is time to pour.
The first pour is done though a sieve with three layers of cheesecloth into another pot. This catches a lot of the icky stuff. In the photo you can see some wax moth larvae that have met their demise.
For the next pours I used clean milk cartons as wax containers. I like them because when the wax sets up you can just peel the carton away
Each carton is topped with three layers of cheesecloth. I have used paint strainers in the past, which work quite well, but I like the cheesecloth because the holes on each layer are not lined up with each other, creating a better filter. Plus, the waxy cheesecloth makes great fire starters.
I pour the wax two times. The first pour goes from the pot through the cheesecloth into a milk carton, and then I remove that cheesecloth, and pour that container of wax/honey/water through another 3-layers of cheesecloth into a second milk carton. Then I let it sit.
It has been cold here, so the wax completely set up overnight. In fact, it started to set up during the final pour.
The solidified wax floats on top of the honey and water in the carton. So, the peeling off of the milk carton is best done outside or over a sink.
The finished wax will have a thin layer of debris stuck to the bottom, where the wax met the water. No matter what you pour your wax into, this debris will be embedded in the bottom. Thus the smaller the base of the container, the more concentrated the debris, which is why I use milk cartons. No debris should be inside the wax block.
The bottom debris can just be scraped or cut off of the block of wax, and there you have it – after a few hours of melting, filtering, filtering again, and letting it set up it’s done. It’s a lot of time, which is why good beeswax does not come cheap.
Side note: if you render wax and find that once it sets up there is debris in side the wax, or it is not as clean as you wish, DO NOT DESPAIR. Just place the solid block in the pot with an inch of water over a low flame and do it all again: melt, skim, and filter; the same way you did before – you just need at least one more pass. How do I know this? Well very little in life works out perfectly the first time we try something – after all that’s often the most important learning moment.
How did the supervisor feel about it all? As you can see she felt the process to be a bit dull. Her second in command “Mack-The-Knife” (aka Macky) felt that reading was a far better use of his time.