Beeswax is a natural wax produced in the bee hive of honeybees of the genus Apis. Beeswax is produced by young worker bees between 12 and 17 days old in the form of thin scales secreted by glands on the ventral surface of the abdomen. Worker bees have eight wax-producing mirror glands on the inner sides of the sternites (the ventral shield or plate of each segment of the body) on abdominal segments 4 to 7. The size of these wax glands depends on the age of the worker, and after daily flights begin these glands gradually degenerate. However, glands can be reactivated by older bees in situations when they might find a new home, such as after swarming (the honeybees’ natural method of reproduction).
The new wax scales are initially glass-clear and colourless becoming opaque after mastication by the worker bee. The wax of honeycomb is nearly white, but becomes progressively more yellow or brown by incorporation of pollen oils and propolis. The wax scales are about 3 millimetres (0.12 in) across and 0.1 millimetres (0.0039 in) thick, and about 1100 are required to make a gram of wax.
Western honey bees use the beeswax to build honeycomb cells in which their young are raised and honey and pollen are stored. For the wax-making bees to secrete wax, the ambient temperature in the hive has to be 33 to 36 °C (91 to 97 °F). To produce their wax, bees must consume about eight times as much honey by mass. It is estimated that bees fly 150,000 miles to yield one pound of beeswax (530,000 km/kg). When beekeepers extract the honey, they cut off the wax caps from each honeycomb cell with an uncapping knife or machine. Its color varies from nearly white to brownish, but most often a shade of yellow, depending on purity and the type of flowers gathered by the bees. Wax from the brood comb of the honey bee hive tends to be darker than wax from the honeycomb. Impurities accumulate more quickly in the brood comb. Due to the impurities, the wax has to be rendered before further use. The leftovers are called slumgum.
The wax may further be clarified by heating in water and may then be used for candles or as a lubricant for drawers and windows or as a wood polish. As with petroleum waxes, it may be softened by dilution with vegetable oil to make it more workable at room temperature.
Ancient civilisations made candles with raw, natural materials such as bees wax, vegetable waxes and animal fat. Whale wax (spermaceti) was first used in the 18th century because of its purity and faint odour compared to animal fats. Production of stearin and petroleum waxes began in the mid 19th century and these materials became, and remain, dominant in the candle market. In the second half of the 20th century, semi-synthetic and synthetic waxes were used to make special application candles and by the 1990’s hydrogenated vegetable oils (soy and palm) appeared as candle production components.
Today, waxes most often used in candle production are paraffin waxes (ca.85%) and stearins (7%). The share of animal and vegetable fats (4%) and beeswax (2%) is much smaller and the share of other hardening waxes (montan and synthetic waxes) amounts to approximately 7%.
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