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How do bees make wax? And did you know some of the oldest dental fillings were made from beeswax?

Posted November 25, 2019

Honeybees are incredible. Not only they are domestic and live in highly organized social structures, they produce honey, propolis and wax. Humans have been friends with bees for thousands of years and, hopefully, this friendship will continue for thousands of years more.

But do you know how bees make their wax?

To be completely honest, bees are not the only wax producers in nature. If you thought they are, it is probably because of your perception of wax being a certain material. Wax is actually a diverse class of organic compounds. For example, Chinese wax is produced by the scale insect Ceroplastes ceriferus, lanolin is extracted from wool and spermaceti occurs in large amounts in the head oil of the sperm whale. However, beeswax is easily accessible to us and has a broad range of application.

Beeswax is used a construction material for the honeycombs. Image credit: Merdal via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Bees actually secrete wax from eight wax-producing glands in the abdominal segments. The ambient temperature has to be pretty high for them to work their magic – 33-36 °C is ideal. But don’t think that bees cannot make wax in colder climate countries. Beehive is self-regulating when it comes to temperature – it can be even warmer inside of it sometimes.

Beeswax scales are initially clear. Image credit: Waugsberg via Wikimedia(CC BY 2.5)

Freshly secreted beeswax forms into completely transparent scales. As you know, beeswax is not transparent. This is because bees take these scales and mix them with polen oil and propolis, which makes the wax yellow or even brown in some cases, depending on the polen. Then wax is carefully sculpted to create whatever the bee is doing. Working bees use wax, obviously, to make the honeycomb, where they house their offspring and keep the honey, but it is also used for sealing little gaps around the hive.

Beeswax is a compound of palmitate, palmitoleate, and oleate esters of long-chain aliphatic alcohols and other chemicals. Approximately, its chemical formula looks like this –  C15H31COOC30H61,but it differs depending on the species of the bees and what they eat. It is not toxic – it is actually approved for eating if you choose so. Some people chew a fresh honeycomb pretty much like a chewing gum.

Beeswax candles and figurines. Image credit: Ejdzej via Wikimedia(CC BY-SA 3.0)

Beeswax is still used in a huge variety of application. Some wood finishes incorporate beeswax, it is also used in surgeries to control bleeding from bone surfaces and candles are made from it as well. Some of the oldest dental fillings were made from beeswax as well. It was also used for wax tablets that were used for writing. Finally, beeswax helped stabilizing the military explosive Torpex,before being replaced by a petroleum-based product.

And that is not all – beeswax is a natural and extremely versatile material, used in food, pharmaceutical, make-up and other industries. We’ve been using it for thousands of years and will use for a thousand more.

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