For honey bees, wax is one of the building blocks of life — literally.
The bees produce and use the wax to build the combs in the hives in which they raise their brood, and store pollen and surplus honey to eat over the winter.
Humans have been using beeswax for centuries to make candles, wax tablets, lubricant, sealing wax and even as an ancient form of dental fillings. Beeswax and beeswax creations have been found in Egyptian tombs, wrecked viking ships and in Roman ruins. It never spoils, and can be reheated and reused.
“People do look for beeswax,” said Meghan Gavin, co-owner of the Maine Honey Exchange in Portland. “They are buying blocks of beeswax to make their own products, to use [as a lubricant] or drawer slides, or even as mustache wax.”
Holly Hardwick began creating beeswax products a few years ago after she was contacted by a local beekeeper asking if she could clean and melt his beeswax.
“That’s where it all started,” Hardwick said. “I had all of this gorgeous wax [and] instantly the thoughts started racing through my head.”
But Hardwick knew she needed some expert help.
“Making those things is a special talent, and I knew I needed a good ‘alchemist,’” she said. “So I reached out to Julie Rayder.”
Now Rayder, owner of Nutritious Skin in Madawaska, and Hardwick create natural beeswax candles, salves, balms, soaps, food wrap and crayons in northern Maine.
Farther to the south, the folks at Fabula Nebulae are creating what they term “farm to tub products” using beeswax as a base ingredient.
“People like [beeswax] because of the properties it carries,” said Justas Ginautas, company general manager. “It’s an antifungal, antibacterial, and that is important [because] in our natural products we steer clear of synthetics, and beeswax works for us.”
Fabula Nebulae was created by Gintautas’ sister and company CEO Pasaka Griciene and her husband Jonas Gricius.
“My sister is the mastermind behind all the things we make,” Ginautas said. “She’s been making salves and balms for seven years, but as a business we celebrate our third anniversary Aug. 1.”
In addition to its soothing properties when used as a balm or salve, beeswax has a more practical application, Ginautas said.
“It’s a thickening agent,” he said. “We use olive oil and shea butter [as ingredients], and without added beeswax, it would just be a muck.”
Ginautas estimates they use about 80 pounds of beeswax a year, most of which they obtain as pure bricks from a supplier in Pennsylvania that uses solar energy and other sustainable methods to render the wax.
From raw to clean wax
Hardwick, on the other hand, renders her own wax using a simple — if messy — at-home method.
The wax arrives at Hardwick’s shop from a local beekeeper in blocks that look like dirty bricks. She places that raw wax into an old pillow case which she then puts it in water warm enough to melt the wax.
“I leave it in that water overnight,” she said. “As the wax melts it passes through the pillow case that acts like a filter and then floats to the top of the water and solidifies.”
The next morning, Hardwick skims the clean wax off the top of the water.
“The gunk that was in the wax stays in the pillowcase,” she said. “And there will be layer of gunk on the underside of the wet wax that I peel off, [and] we call that ‘slum gum.’”
Hardwick repeats the process at least three times, or more, if the wax is destined to be used in cosmetic products.
“It just smells so good,” she said. “It’s such a wonderful and natural product.”
Bees make beeswax using special glands in their bodies that convert the honey they eat into wax which then oozes through the bee’s pores and ends up as tiny flakes on their abdomens.
The bees collect this wax and chew it to combine it with their saliva and soften it to the point they are able to use it to build or repair comb in the hive.
It’s also used by the bees to “cap” or seal up individual sections in the comb to preserve the honey.
Beekeepers remove these beeswax caps as the first step in the honey harvesting process.
“We get a lot of our pure beeswax during the honey harvesting season,” Gavin said. “Some people leave it for us after they extract honey, and we buy from others.”
Here to stay
Gavin said there is a great deal of interest in the wax and the products made from it.
“Yeah, we sell a lot of it,” she said.
At Fabula Nebulae, Ginautas said the interest in products such as their skin-soothing “Salve to Quiet the Storm” remains high.
“It’s a product that works wonders,” he said. “If this general movement toward natural and safer products is a fad, I don’t think it’s one that is going pass anytime soon.”
Hardwick agrees and is always on the lookout for the next beeswax creation. Most recently she has been experimenting with the ancient art of batik, in which the wax is used to create tye-dye-like designs on natural fabrics.
And she has no plans to stop exploring beeswax options.
“‘What can I do to make something cool with beeswax,’ I ask myself,” she said with a laugh. “My head is like a bees’ nest of ideas.”
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