Carol Cottrill is a former president of the Maine State Beekeepers’ Association and has held a number of other positions within Maine’s beekeeping community, including president of the Western Maine Beekeepers’ Association. She’s been beekeeping for years and has dedicated a fair amount of time over the years to sharing her knowledge with other beekeepers. I’ve invited Carol over to the Somerset Beekeepers a couple of times to have her speak to our group and her presentations are always informative, with a splash of her own brand of witty humor thrown in. It was a pleasure to see Carol on the stage at the 2015 meeting of the MSBA.
Carol says she really enjoys working with beeswax; it’s one of the funner parts of beekeeping and after all, she got into beekeeping because she wanted to have fun.
Beeswax is insoluble in water and has a .95 density, so it is less dense than water and actually floats. That’s important in some of the processing and cleaning methods used when working with beeswax.
It melts at 144° but with discolor if melted at too high a temperature; beeswax has a flashpoint and will burst into flames around 400° so it’s very important to take precautions when processing and working with beeswax. Carol strongly recommends keeping a fire extinguisher handy.
To read more about the many benefits of beeswax, check out this article I put together a while back.
Collecting your beeswax
You can collect beeswax in the form of burr comb and other scrapings. Carol says she keeps a metal coffee can in her beekeeping kit specifically for that purpose. The old wax from frames can be salvaged and melted down. And of course, there are the cappings from honey-extraction.
You can spread your beeswax out and allow the bees to clean it for you and a good many beekeepers do just that, but Carol cautions against it because you can unwittingly spread diseases and pests. Instead, she recommends using netting or placing the wax in a mesh bag and rinsing the honey off with cool water.
Because beeswax is flammable it’s best to avoid heating it directly on the stove and propane stoves should be avoided when processing beeswax.
“Now─it’s my kitchen so when I get wax all over my kitchen it’s probably not going to cause a major trauma. But guys─if you get wax all over your wife’s kitchen, it might.”
Carol suggests covering surfaces because the wax will blurp and splatter, or even investing in a portable electric burner that will allow you to process your beeswax in a variety of locations aside from the kitchen.
“One more tip guys: do not get a pan out of your wife’s kitchen.” Use old pans for processing your beeswax because no amount of scrubbing is going to take the wax off a good kettle. Tag sales, lawn sales, thrift stores, Good Will and Marden’s are all good places to look for a couple of old kettles for your beeswax projects. You should avoid using copper or iron pans though, as a reaction between your wax and those metals can discolor your wax.
There are many methods for processing beeswax, but one of the most common is the water process method. This involves taking a large kettle, filling it half full with water, adding the beeswax and heating it til the wax melts completely. Then allow it to cool so that you can remove the disk of wax.
Carol cautions against using tap-water unless you’re sure your water is pure, because city water has enough “stuff” in it that she recommends bottled water.
If your wax is really gunky you can filter it by pouring the wax and water through a seive or cheesecloth into a second pot of the same size. You may need to do this several times, using increasingly finer filters each time until the majority of the impurities have been removed from the wax.
Carol’s tip: Take a wooden cooking spoon and tie it to your kettle so that it stands straight up along the inside of the kettle. Allow the wax to cool around it, and once it has solidified pull the spoon out. Either the wax will come out with the spoon and you’ll end up with a wax lollipop, or it will leave behind a hole that allows you to pour the water out so that you can retrieve your wax disk.
Some impurities float on top of the water but below the wax and you will have a layer of debris on the bottom of your wax disk. Simply take a butter knife and scrape it off, Carol instructs. And you will finally have clean beeswax to use in a variety of projects.
Pour the final batch into a mold: there are a number of commercially available mold, but Carol simply uses an orange juice carton because it is the perfect size to fit into the metal coffee can she uses for melting wax when doing projects; but you can use anything that works for you.
Beeswax is the duct-tape of the natural world─it has a thousand and one uses. Carol talked about making lipbalm and handcream, making candles and fire-starters made of pine cones; and what better way to spend time in the winter than having fun with beeswax? When you’re not busy making new frames for all those new hives you’re going to have next spring that is!