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All About Beeswax

Latest and Most Economical Methods of Rendering Old Combs, Refining, and Marketing of Beeswax

1923

The A. I. Root Company
Medina, Ohio

INTRODUCTION

Beeswax has been known, ever since ancient times, as a useful product. It was first used in medicine by the ancients, in making salves and healing ointments, and later in making artificial flowers, wax figures, masks and candles. It was also used in making inscriptions on tablets with a sharp stylus, and in engraving upon marble, brass and other metal sheets. Modeling in wax has been a form of highly accomplished art down through the ages.

However, what concerns the modern beekeeper and what he is most interested in, is not so much a history of beeswax or its uses. It is rather how he can best refine his wax, prepare it for market in such shape as to get the best possible price, and do it in the quickest and easiest way. It is the purpose of this little booklet to give this information simply and clearly, and we trust that the reader may derive some real and lasting benefit from its pages.

(Much of the material in this booklet has been taken from the 1923 edition of the A B C and X Y Z of Bee Culture.)

BEESWAX

Wax is a term that is applied to a large class of substances very much resembling one another in external characteristics, but quite unlike chemically. The wax of commerce may be divided into four general groups: Beeswax, familiar to all; mineral wax, or by-products from petroleum; wax from plants; and wax from insects other than bees. The first two are by far the most important commercially in this country. Of the mineral waxes the most common are paraffin and ceresin. Beeswax, the most valuable, has a specific gravity of between .960 and .972, and melting-point of between 143 and 145 degrees F. The mineral waxes vary so much in hardness, melting-point and specific gravity that it would be useless to name exact figures. As a rule, however, the fusing-point of paraffin is much below that of beeswax, while that of ceresin may be either above or below, or practically the same. In general the specific gravity of both commercial paraffin and ceresin is below that of beeswax; which fact renders it an easy matter to detect adulteration of beeswax with either paraffin or ceresin, by a method that will be explained further on, under the subhead, ”How to Detect Adulterated Wax.”

There are also known to commerce Japanese wax and China wax, both of which may or may not be the product of insects or plants.

Comb Foundation

Combs made from foundation containing twenty-five to fifty percent of adulteration of paraffin or ceresin are very liable to melt down in the hive in hot weather. Paraffin is ductile enough to make beautiful foundation, but does not stand the heat of the hive. Ceresin, on the other hand, while more closely resembling genuine beeswax in point of specific gravity and fusibility, is too tough and brittle, under some conditions, for bees to work. Work it? Yes, they will, and construct combs; and in Germany considerable ceresin foundation has been and perhaps is being sold; but experience shows that it is poor economy, and that it will lead the beekeeper or the poor bees to grief sooner or later.

Some recent work seems to show that there are certain wax compounds, that can he used to strengthen ordinary beeswax from the hive. In 1922 there was introduced a three-ply comb foundation, the center ply of which is of a much harder wax. The tests of this foundation at this writing seem to show that it is much stronger and better than ordinary foundation for the brood-nest.

Beeswax in the Arts

Since the United States pure-food law went in effect June 30, 1906, beeswax has had a much larger use. The law will have no effect one way or the other on the use of paraffin, ceresin, and the like in any compound or mixture that does not belong either to the food or drug classes. Electrotypers can use a substitute for taking impressions, although the great majority prefer pure beeswax, even at a higher price. Natural-wood finishers can still use paraffin and ceresin; but most of them assert that there is nothing to compare for that purpose with pure beeswax. The first mentioned gives a greasy, smeary finish, while the product from the hive yields a highly polished surface – one that stands wear as nothing else will; a finish cheaper than hard oil – not in the price by the gallon, but cheaper per square foot of surface covered.

A very satisfactory floor finish can be made by melting a pound of beeswax, and while it is cooling, stirring into it some turpentine. An exact proportion of the two ingredients is not necessary – in fact some workmen prefer the paste thick, others want it thin. When cool, if the mixture is too thick it is a simple matter to thin it by working in more turpentine.

The Roman Catholic Church uses large quantities of beeswax in the form of candles. The Church does not tolerate paraffin, ceresin, nor any of the mineral waxes, all of which give off an offensive greasy odor while burning, whereas candles made of beeswax leave a delightful perfume. Moreover, the burning of mineral wax causes a deposit that injures pictures, while beeswax mellows and preserves them.

Certain grades of blacking, harness oils and lubricants require pure beeswax in their manufacture. A blacking containing beeswax will withstand more dampness than that made of any other substance.

The electrical-supply business is a consumer of beeswax. The windings of the wire are soaked in paraffin or beeswax – preferably the latter, because it seems less affected by extremes of heat and by moisture. Pattern-makers also use beeswax. The profession of dentistry consumes large quantities of pure wax every year to take impressions in the mouth. Last, but not least, the beekeeper is a large consumer as well as a producer of wax.

In all the arts, paraffin, ceresin and certain other mineral waxes can be used; but none of them have all the desirable qualities furnished by the product from the hive.

How the Bees ”Make” Wax

If the bees are watched closely during the height of the honey harvest, or if at other times a colony of bees is fed heavily on sugar syrup for three days during warm weather, there will be found toward the end of the second or the third day little pearly discs of wax, somewhat resembling fish scales, protruding from between the rings of the under side of the body of the bee. These when examined with a magnifier reveal little wax scales of rare beauty. Sometimes these scales come so fast that they fall on the bottom-board and may be scraped up in considerable quantities, seeming for some reason not to have been wanted. During the season for the natural secretion of wax where a colony has plenty of room, wax scales are seldom wasted in this way. At swarming time there seem to be an unusual number of bees provided with wax scales, for when the bees remain clustered on a limb for only a few minutes bits of wax are attached as if they were going to start combs.

The way the bees remove these wax scales from their bodies and construct them into comb is not so easily seen. There were many wild guesses as to how this was done. The so-called ”wax-pinchers” on the hind legs were supposed to play an important part. The matter was definitely cleared up by Sladen and Casteel. In circular No. 161 Dr. D. B. Casteel of the Bureau of Entomology, Washington, D. C.. made the whole process plain.

Briefly stated, it is this: The wax scales are scraped off by one of the large joints, or plantae of one hind leg, the spines of the planta piercing or catching into the scale; then the leg, by a peculiar maneuvering, is moved up to where the fore legs may grasp the scale. At this point of proceedings the scale is manipulated or masticated in the mandibles, when it is applied to the comb. During the process, the bee stands on three legs (the two middle legs on either side, and one hind leg not in action), while the other hind leg and the two fore legs, in connection with the madibles, perform the manipulation. Casteel says that the so-called ”wax-pinchers” in the hind legs have nothing to do with the manipulation of wax, but are designed for another purpose, and that each individual bee removes its own wax scales.

It has been supposed that the bees remove the scales from each other; but Casteel shows that this is not the case. The scales are sometimes found scattered throughout the hive and on the bottom-board as already stated. In some instances they show the marks of the spines of the planta of the hind legs. In others they were probably dropped accidentally by the bees in that wonderful sleight-of-hand performance by which they transfer the scale from one portion of the body to the other. In still other cases the scales show no markings whatever, and the presumption is that they simply fell off the bees when they reached a certain stage of development.

Dr. Casteel also confirms the observation of Dreyling, that there are certain ages and certain seasons when the bees will develop these wax scales more than at others. From this it would appear that there are times when the bees cannot construct combs to any great extent, even though they are liberally fed. In a practical way it has been found that sometimes even when the bees are fed they will not build combs; and the probabilities are that they simply can not, because the colony is made up of bees too young, too old, or both. Usually the condition of a honey flow can be supplied artificially by feeding.

WAX-RENDERING

There are two methods of rendering wax, one by the use of artificial heat and the other by the use of the suns rays through a glass sash on the principle of a hotbed. When these rays pass into a glass-covered box a considerable amount of heat is generated – enough to melt wax. As the application of the solar method is quite simple, it will he described first.

Solar Wax-Extractor

The general design of this machine is after a pattern made and used by the well-known beekeeper, G. M. Doolittle. The only objection to it is that it is rather small, but just the right size to take pieces of burr-comb and other bits of wax that accumulate in the everyday working of the apiary.

These accumulations can be thrown into the machine whenever one happens to pass by it; and instead of having a lot of little scraps scattered here and there through the apiary, to be melted up at some future time, they may be converted at once into a marketable product.

These small machines are not suitable for melting up combs. For that, something as large as the Boardman should be used.

The Boardman Solar Wax-Extractor

This is built very much on the same general plan as the one just described, but is larger. The rockers, or runners, afford facility for transportation, and also for tilting the machine at the proper angle to the sun. A common greenhouse sash may be used; but a large glass, say 30 x 60, is better for the reason that the sash cuts off much of the sun’s rays, making the shade-lines along which the wax fails to melt. The size of the glass that one is able to buy will, of course, regulate the size of the extractor;* the depth of the box or tray may be from 6 to 8 inches, the bottom being made of cheap lumber. It should be lined with common black sheet iron. Tin should not be used, because it reflects back too much of the sun’s light. The whole machine should be painted black; and the glass, while the machine is in use, kept scrupulously clean.

Solar Wax-Extractor Not Suitable for Old Combs

Solar wax-extractors have their use to handle new combs, particles of fresh wax, pieces of burr-combs, and the like, and can be used to clarify and bleach, to a certain extent, wax already caked, but they are not adapted to the handling of old black combs that have several generations of cocoons in them. Large sun extractors like the Boardman will get the bulk of the wax out of such combs, but they do not get all of it. If sun heat is used at all for melting, the refuse should be further treated.

Rendering Wax from Old Combs

For new combs the problem of rendering wax is a comparatively simple one, since the operation consists simply in melting them in hot water and dipping the wax off the top. This is true also of cappings where the total amount of refuse or impurities is so small that there is practically no difficulty in getting all the wax. For the purpose a solar wax-extractor is satisfactory, although not to be depended upon for speed nor great capacity unless very large, which would be expensive.

When old comb is to be rendered, the problem becomes much more difficult, as the many layers of cocoons found in the cells used for brood-rearing confine the wax and make it hard to remove. It can be readily seen that, if old comb is simply melted in hot water or steam, these cocoons will become saturated with wax, making the loss very great. The following discussion, therefore, will have to do especially with the difficulties encountered in rendering wax from old combs.

There are many different methods practiced by beekeepers to obtain the wax from old brood-combs; and it is needless to say that, in many of them, the loss is considerable. One of the crudest methods is to throw the combs into a large iron kettle of water and then build a fire and boil the contents for several hours, skimming the wax off the top of the water meanwhile. More comb is added from time to time, and the process is continued perhaps all day. Finally a piece of wire screen is weighted down on the refuse to keep it out of the way and facilitate dipping the wax. Careful experiments have shown that this method wastes from twenty-five to forty per cent of the total amount of wax, while much time is required to clean and refine what little wax is secured.

In 1904 T. J. Pennick of Williston, Tenn., suggested the use of centrifugal force applied to hot slumgum just taken out of boiling water. It was his opinion that the free wax, when hot, would by this means readily separate from the solid matter in a very short time. Extensive experiments have developed the fact that there would be a great deal of wax which would not escape from the refuse, no matter how fast it might be whirled in an extractor, showing that even great centrifugal force could not separate the wax from the refuse. Wax nearest the outside might be thrown out; but that nearest the center would be held back and not escape.

A. C. Miller of Providence, R. I., some time ago devised an agitator and applied it to the rendering of wax. He claimed it released all the wax and lots of dirt and coloring matter. The old combs in such an agitator are thoroughly stirred and rubbed under hot water so that the wax is liberated, and rises to the surface, where it is drawn off through a spout.

From experiments and from reports received from hundreds of beekeepers, it would seem as though the wax-press is by all means the most satisfactory wax-extractor yet devised. It is doubtful whether anything but pressure combined with hot water can remove all of the wax. There will probably never be a wax-extractor of any kind that will economically remove the last particle of wax; but if the amount of waste can be reduced to less than one per cent, the loss is negligible.

Before entering the discussion of wax-presses it may be well to add a word of caution to beekeepers who are sure that the particular method they are using enables them to obtain all the wax or partically all. If the refuse, when the wax is finished, has not been put through a well-constructed press there will be no way of determining the amount of waste, for it might contain as much as twenty per cent of wax and still look perfectly clean and show no traces of it when examined. On a small scale, it is possible to get some idea of the amount of wax left in refuse by the following very simple plan:

Thoroughly heat in boiling water the refuse to be tested, then allow it to cool slightly; seize a large handful, and squeeze it as hard as possible in the fingers. If fine lines of wax appear in the creases between the fingers considerable wax is left – perhaps from five to ten per cent or more, depending upon the amount of wax shown. The hand will not be burned in the very short time necessary to make this test. But, as before stated, the most conclusive method of determining the waste is to run the refuse through a well-constructed press.

Hot-Water Wax Presses

In hot-water presses the pressure may be continued without the least danger of chilling the combs. The hot water has the decided advantage in that the screw can be raised after having been turned down, when the “cheese” can become saturated again with boiling water. The screw may then be lowered, and the hot water forced out of the refuse, carrying with it more of the wax. This operation must be repeated as often as found necessary by experience. It is thus seen that there is no disagreeable handling of the refuse until all the wax is out. Furthermore, the work, if necessary, may be confined to the one tank.

Perhaps one objection to hot-water presses is the cost of the outfit; but for extensive beekeepers they are the most practical, as much cleaner work can be done, owing to the continued intermittent pressure on the refuse surrounded by hot water. In other words, old combs rendered in a hot-water press may be pressed as many as fifteen or twenty times, so that it is possible to reduce the final loss to only a fraction of one per cent.

If one wishes to try the hot water method by using an outfit constructed at home he can follow the plan shown in Fig. 3. An ordinary kettle may be used, although it would be advisable to have one with a flat bottom. As it would be rather difficult to construct a crossbeam over the kettle rigid enough to stand the pressure exerted by a screw, a lever may be used as shown, though some means will have to be employed to keep it from falling over sidewise, such as a loop around a tree or post. In using a lever it is important to have it so adjusted that the pressure will be uniform and directly downward. Any pressure exerted from a point not directly over the kettle will result in pressing the refuse to one side, so that the “cheese” will be very thin on one edge and very thick on the other. If this were the case there would, of course, be too much wax left in the thick portion. To get the best results the “cheese” should not be over an inch or an inch and a half thick after pressing.

Cleaner work can be done by an intermittent than by continuous study pressure; and so whether a lever or screw, it is well to relieve the pressure about every ten minutes, allowing the “cheese” two or three minutes in which to become thoroughly saturated again with boiling water. Pressure should be applied slowly at first in order to avoid bursting the burlap.

With the outdoor kettle plan, the wax will be discolored on account of the long-continued heat unless it is dipped off the surface of the water almost as fast as it rises. About three hours of intermittent pressure for one batch of combs in a kettle will render out the wax.

Steam-Presses

Methods of rendering wax, embodying the principle of applying great pressure to combs surrounded by steam, are quite old, both in this country and in Germany, where they originated. In some ways steam-presses have advantages over other methods; but the quality of wax is usually not so good, because of the high temperature to which the comparatively thin surfaces of melted wax are subjected; although the wax, as it leaves the refuse, falls down out of the way so that the work can be much more conveniently carried on, since there is no great depth of water in the way.

A steam-press of popular design is shown in Fig. 4. Steam is generated under a false bottom in the lower part, and, passing upward around the false bottom, surrounds the combs beneath the plunger in the perforated metal basket. As the wax falling from the refuse cannot get into the water on account of the false bottom, it passes out of the tube shown.

Steam-presses are very convenient as uncapping-cans; for when the perforated metal basket is full of cappings the cross-arm can be placed in position, the screw run down, and practically all honey forced out. Steam then may be generated, and the wax melted into marketable shape without any second handling and with little extra trouble; or the “cheese” of cappings, pressed nearly dry of honey, may be stored away to be rendered into wax at a more convenient time later.

These presses are also very useful in pressng honey from broken combs, unfinished sections, etc., and rendering the pressed comb into wax. For the real business of rendering old combs, the presses using hot water as the heating agent are much superior.

Plain Presses

C. A. Hatch of Wisconsin was probably the first one to make extensive use of a plain press for wax-rendering. He had used for a short time a press designed by W. W. Cary of Massachusetts in which the combs were pressed while submerged in hot water; but he believed that he could improve on this plan by applying pressure in a different receptacle without the use of so much hot water. Later, F. A. Gemmell of Ontario, Canada, also used such a press, which finally came to be known as the Hatch-Gemmell wax-press.

The particular form of press that is sold largely is shown in Fig. 6. It will be noticed that a round can, constructed of tin, is used instead of the square wooden box and tray. The principal reason for this change is that it is easier to keep the “cheese” from bursting out sidewise when a round box or can is used, for the square box tends to bulge out in the middle, thus allowing the burlap to burst. If a round can is used, the pressure sidewise is always in a direction away from the center, and the horizontal pressure is thus equalized.

The Best Method

In using this press a tube was thought necessary at the bottom of the can, left open during the pressing so that the hot water and wax could run away immediately. It is better however, to have no opening at the bottom of the can, but to confine the hot water and wax, thus preventing chilling as much as possible.

If no heat is applied to the combs during the pressing it is necessary to do the work in warm weather or in some room that can be kept hot by the heat of the stove used for melting, for when the air is cold the wax chills and the work is hindered. The efficiency of the press is greatly increased if a very small jet of steam is introduced from a steam-knife boiler or teakettle, carried by means of a rubber tube to a one-quarter-inch copper pipe about fourteen inches long, with a right-angle bend five or six inches from the bottom and with a long curve at the upper end. This is applied to the wax-press can as shown in Fig. 6. As will be noted the pipe goes down between two of the vertical cleats on the side of the can and is then extended over toward the center between two of the horizontal cleats at the bottom, under the screen. While the pressure is being applied the water and wax keep up a gentle boiling – an ideal condition. No matter how long the pressure is kept on the slumgum, nor how many times the screw is raised to allow the hot water to saturate the refuse again, the water keeps up this gentle boiling, so to speak, and the wax on top shows no tendency to cool. It was formerly recommended to run the refuse through the press a second time; but if steam is introduced as explained, the second melting and rendering is unnecessary unless the work has been very carelessly done. If there is any doubt as to the thoroughness of the work, it is a good plan to run the refuse through a second time to make sure that it is clean. The second rendering takes about half the time that the first did.

An Ideal Equipment

Fig. 7 shows the small outfit which the author recommends, including stoves, press, cans for melting the combs, boiler for steam, etc. A cook stove with a top large enough to hold two good-sized wash-boilers is ideal, but frequently it is inconvenient to provide such a stove in a basement or outbuilding where the wax-rendering is done. Two double-burner gasoline stoves, one for each wash-boiler, will do as well. Oil stoves would answer the purpose for melting the combs, but are not quite so convenient owing to the difficulty in turning down the oil burners in case the combs get to boiling too hard. Wash-boilers connot be cleaned very easily after being used for melting combs, hence should be kept for this purpose only. Many prefer to use a large square tank of galvanized iron, possibly over a brick furnace out of doors. Or a stock-feed cooker may be used, costing from $15.00 to $35.00.

The press should stand on a solid box that is firmly secured to the floor, and it should be hinged in front so that it may be tippd over to run hot water and wax into the can beneath. A large box or basket must be provided to hold the refuse after it is pressed. An open-headed barrel with a plug at the bottom is the handiest receptacle for holding the hot water and wax.

Directions for Rendering

When ready to begin work light one of the stoves and put on a boiler a little over helf full of water. If the water is very hard add a little borax. When the water boils throw in the old combs. Thirty-five to forty combs (about half a barrel) may be put in gradually, provided they are carefully pushed down with a paddle and stirred as they melt. When all the comb that the boiler will hold conveniently has been put in, place the cover on and allow the mass to cook thoroughly. About this time light the other stove and put on another boiler of water; also set going the burner under the steam-boiler on a third stove to supply steam to the press-can.

It facilitates the work if a quantity of straw, preferably rye straw, is cut up in two-inch lengths and stirred into the melted combs. It makes the “cheese” more porous so that less wax is left in the slumgum.

It is a mistake to begin pressing as soon as the comb is melted. Continue the cooking process with frequent stirrings until the combs are reduced to a steaming mushy mass. There must be no hard chunks.

When the contents of the first boiler are ready for pressing and the steam begins to issue from the pipe in the bottom of the press-can, pull the can forward on the platform, holding it in postion by means of the spider on the lower end of the screw resting on the top of the can, as in Fig. 8. There should be in readiness a few pieces of good strong burlap, at least 40 inches square. Place one of these in the press can; put the follower on top of it and throw a few dipperfuls of hot water from the other boiler into the can to heat thoroughly all the parts. Pour this off and spread the burlap down into the can as in Fig. 9. Dip about two gallons of the melted comb and water into the press and fold the burlap neatly over it, as carefully as though tying up a package. This is very important; for if there are thick rolls of the cloth in any one part of the “cheese,” other parts of the refuse will not receive as much pressure as needed. To fold the burlap over, fold the back edge over toward the front, being careful to get the sides straight, then push the front edge over on top of it; lastly, fold in the sides neatly. Place the cleated circular follower in postion (cleats down, of course); push the can back exactly in the center of the platform and run the screw down very slowly – Fig. 10.

At this time it may be necessary to turn down the gasoline burners under the first boiler in order that the contents may not get too hot; or, if it is on a stove, pull it over to the edge. Use the utmost care to prevent the wax from slopping over. If it does, there is danger of having a serious fire. As soon as the water in the second boiler boils, begin filling that with combs.

Always turn the screw down slowly. If it is run down rapidly before the liquid in the mass inside the burlap has time to squeeze out, the burlap and the contents inside are likely to push up around the follower, interfering seriously with the escape of the water and wax. Turn the screw only when it turns easily. Of course, when it is clear down it may be turned tight; but there is really more danger in applying too much pressure than in not applying enough.

Sufficient water should have been dipped in with the comb so that the water and wax, when the screw is clear down, will just about submerge the iron spider on the end of the screw. It ought to take two or three minutes to get the screw clear down. When it is down about as far as it will go, release the pressure until the cast-iron follower is nearly out of the liquid; pull up on the rope handle of the wooden follower until it is free from the burlap, thus allowing the hot water to saturate the refuse again. After a minute or so apply the pressure slowly once more. This process should be repeated two or three times.

Instead of using a jet of steam as described, an extra can may be used, one to be on the stove being reheated while the other is under the press.

When the screw is finally down as far as it will go, place a washtub or a large can on the floor in front of the press and tip the latter over, pouring all the water and wax out. Leave the press tipped over a few moments until the wax drains out – Fig. 11.

When no more wax will drain out, tip the press back into its regular position and pour the hot water and wax into an empty can or barrel having a faucet at the bottom. If a barrel is used which is smaller at the top, the hot water must first be drawn off after the work is over, and the wax run into previously soaped molds to harden. It is more convenient to use an oval-shaped can or round can that is larger at the top, so that the wax may be left right in it to harden in one large cake. There is no difficulty in lifting the cake out even though it be 8 or 10 inches thick.

The idea of the faucet at the bottom is to permit drawing off the hot water, so that it may be used over and over again. There is no object in using fresh water each time; therefore when the first boiler is empty, enough hot water may be drawn off from the supply-can to fill it half full again for a fresh lot of combs.