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Beeswax - useful and valuable product

Beeswax is the material that bees use to build their nests. It is produced by young honeybees that secrete it as a liquid from special wax glands. On contact with air, the wax hardens and forms scales, which appear as small flakes of wax on the underside of the bee. About one million wax scales make 1 kg of wax. Bees use the wax to build the well-known hexagonal cells that make up their comb, a very strong and efficient structure. Bees use the comb cells to store honey and pollen; the queen lays her eggs in them, and young bees develop in them. Beeswax is produced by all species of honeybees, although the waxes produced by different species have slightly different chemical and physical properties.

Beeswax quality

Beeswax is valued according to its purity and colour. Light-coloured wax is more highly valued than dark-coloured wax, because dark wax is likely to have been contaminated or overheated. The finest beeswax is from wax cappings, which are the wax seals with which bees cover ripe honeycombs. This new wax is pure and white. The presence of pollen turns it yellow.

FIGURE 12 Beeswax.

Income from beeswax

For several reasons beeswax is an excellent commodity for rural communities to use as a cash or export crop.

· Beeswax processing is easy. Rendering beeswax to a quality suitable for export involves only simple heating and filtering methods to ensure that the beeswax is clean. It can be moulded into blocks using any suitably sized containers as moulds. The blocks are broken into small pieces to assure buyers that the beeswax is pure and clean.

· Transport and storage of beeswax is simple, because no special packaging is required. Beeswax is normally exported as small unwrapped lumps in hessian sacks.

· Beeswax does not deteriorate with age. Individual beekeepers or cooperatives can store small amounts until they have enough to sell.

· As with honey, beeswax can be considered an appropriate export crop for developing countries, because beekeeping does not use land required for local food production.

· In areas where most or all of the honey produced is consumed locally and where there is no major local use for beeswax, honeycombs are often discarded, even though they could provide additional income. Beekeepers sometimes need to be trained in methods of rendering and saving beeswax, and encouraged to sell their combined crop in one transaction.

FIGURE 13 Beeswax processing in United Republic of Tanzania.

Uses of beeswax

Beeswax has many traditional uses. In some countries in Asia and Africa, it is used in creating batik fabrics and in the lost-wax method of casting small metal objects. Beeswax is widely used as a waterproofing agent for wood and leather, and for strengthening threads; it is used in village industries such as candle-making and as an ingredient in ointments, medicines, soaps and polishes. Beeswax is in great demand on the world market. There are more than 300 industrial uses for beeswax. Cosmetics and pharmaceutical industries are the major users, accounting for 70 percent of the world trade, and require first-class beeswax that has not been overheated. The price ranges from US$4 to US$8 per kg. Other significant users are the beekeeping industries in industrialized countries that need beeswax for cosmetic foundations and for candle-making. Beeswax is used in the manufacture of electronic components and CDs, in modelling and casting for industry and art, in polishes for shoes, furniture and floors, in grafting waxes and in specialized industrial lubricants.

TABLE 2 World Trade in Beeswax, 1994





1 500


1 500








12 800

Dominican Republic




2 100



1 563


1 275




1 050

1 615


9 150






South Korea



2 302



United Kingdom


United Republic of Tanzania

1 050



3 027


Source: Data from Bees for Development.
Note: Agood deal of beeswax is exported from Africa by unofficial routes.

Industrialized countries use frame hives for beekeeping. Empty honeycombs are returned to the hive after the extraction of honey, which means that relatively little beeswax is harvested. With frame hives, the ratio of honey to beeswax production is approximately 75:1. Honey hunting or the use of traditional or top-bar hives results in greater yields of beeswax, however, the delicate honeycomb is broken during the extraction of honey and cannot be returned to the nest or hive. The ratio of honey to beeswax production using these hives is about 10:1. For this reason countries in Africa, Asia and Central and South America produce large amounts of beeswax, which can provide a valuable export crop (see Table 2). Beeswax is a valuable export commodity for Ethiopia, for example, and beekeepers in northwest Zambia harvest both wax and honey from bees nesting in bark hives as cash crops for export to Europe.

FIGURE 14 Traders in Pakistan discuss prices of beeswax harvested from wild bee colonies.

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