Beeswax: A Gift from the Beehive

Waxing lyrical

Bees on Honeycomb
Bees on honeycomb Credit : PollyDot / pixabay.com

Most artists working in encaustic use beeswax as their medium.  Beeswax has a lot to offer as a material for art.  I can manipulate the wax to be incredibly smooth or highly textured.  This wax has an unmatchable luminosity and does not require turpentine or solvents.  It also smells fabulous, it is truly a wonderful, tactile and sensuous medium to work with.

But producing beeswax is hard work. Honey bees (such as Apis melifera) puts in a huge amount of effort to produce honey and beeswax. It’s a complex and time consuming procedure for the hive.  And, as an ex-zoologist and an encaustic artist, these wonderful creatures and their work fascinate me.

Hive Mind

Not all honey bees produce wax or honey.  An individual bee’s particular role in the hive is strictly defined.  The queen essentially is an egg producing machine, worker bees feed and tend to her. Only the queen produces eggs, the worker bees do not reproduce.  The drones, male bees, have one purpose – to fertilise the queen bees when they fly from the hive to establish their own hive. 

However, female worker bees make up most of the hive. Each occupies a distinct role.  There are those who guard the hive, those who tend the queen, those who act as climate control within the hive by fanning their wings, those who help young bees emerging from the cells of the comb and of course those honey bees who venture from the hive to collect the nectar and pollen so vital to their survival.  The bees consume the nectar taken from flowers, process it in their stomachs and regurgitate it. Repeating this process several times creates the bee’s food source, honey.

In order to produce the honeycomb, honey bees secrete wax from specialised glands on their abdomens.  Glands in the bees produce tiny waxy flakes. The bees chew the flakes and soften the wax. The pliable wax is then formed into the familiar honeycomb structure which allows them to store honey and to incubate and feed the larvae.

Beeswax and Air Miles

This process takes energy, which is supplied by the honey made by the bees.  Experts estimate that bees consume 6-8 pounds of honey to produce a pound of wax.  The workers of the hive fly over 55,000 miles in total to visit about 2 million flowers, collecting the nectar needed to produce one pound of honey.  So to produce just one pound of beeswax, honey bees can fly over 400,000 miles, extracting nectar from up to 16 million flowers.  And that’s not all that the humble honey bees achieve.  These tiny, beautiful creatures are vital for the pollination of many plants, from wildflowers to food crops.

While factors such as wind or water can spread pollen, the insect pollinators such as bees and butterflies are particularly important as they tend to be choosy about the plants from which they will gather nectar.  They have their own preferences, just like us.  And honey bees account for around 80% of all insect pollination. The selectivity shown by bees means that the pollen from one particular species will have a greater chance of being delivered to another flower of that same species. A BBC documentary Who Killed the Honey Bee revealed that in the UK alone the pollination of many crops by honey bees made an economic contribution to the UK of £190 million each year.

Further information

National Honey Board (USA)

The British Beekeepers Association (UK)

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