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What Is Beeswax?
Petra Ahnert presents dozens of ways to use beeswax in Beeswax Alchemy (Quarry Books, 2015). The possibilities for using beeswax are nearly endless, including skin care, candles, ornaments and even waxed fabric. Learn the basics of extracting and purifying beeswax, and then get started making beautiful, healthful gifts for yourself and your loved ones. The following excerpt is from the “Introduction to Beeswax.”
Beeswax is the miracle of the beehive. The comb is built up from nothing and serves as a house, a nursery, and a food pantry. Over the millennia, bees have figured out that by building their combs into hexagons, the combs hold the most amount of honey and require the least amount of wax. The combs also serve as the perfect area for a bee to undergo its metamorphosis from egg to bee.
So what is beeswax? In the simplest terms, it is a wax produced by honey bees of the genus Apis. Beeswax consists of at least 284 different compounds, mainly a variety of long-chain alkanes, acids, esters, polyesters, and hydroxy esters, but the exact composition of beeswax varies with location. It has a specific gravity of about 0.95 and a melting point of over 140 degrees F.
More specifically, it is a wax that is secreted from eight wax-producing glands on the worker bee’s abdomen. The wax is secreted in thin sheets called scales. The scales, when first secreted, look a bit like mica flakes. They are clear, colorless, tasteless, and very brittle. Beeswax is typically produced by the younger house bees when they are between twelve and twenty days old. As the bee grows older and begins to collect pollen and nectar, these glands start to atrophy, but their ability to produce beeswax doesn’t disappear completely. When bees swarm they will rapidly produce wax comb, since they need to quickly create a place for the queen to lay eggs and somewhere to store food.
To form the beeswax into honeycomb, the bees will hang in strings and as wax is extruded from the glands of the wax-producing bees it is passed between the legs and mouths of the bees that form the chain, being chewed and molded into shape along the way. The bees will then use this wax to build the familiar hexagon-shaped honey cells. It is during this process that the wax starts to develop its color and opacity. Depending on what kind of nectar and pollen come into the hive and is consumed by the bees, microscopic bits of the pollen and nectar remain and get added to the wax. It takes about 1,100 scales to make one gram of wax.
Under the right conditions — meaning there is an adequate supply of food and the ambient temperature within the hive is between 91 degrees F and 97 degrees F — worker bees can produce beeswax on demand. They achieve the right temperature on cooler spring days by clustering around the wax-producing bees when they are building comb.
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