The last month has seen quite a few sales of my Manx Beeswax Lip Balm and I was worried that I was getting low on the beeswax I needed to make more. I had planned to be able to use my own wax by now but since I’ve decided to not take any honey from my hives this year there was very little that I could actually use. The answer to my issue was to let local beekeepers know that if they have extra wax or cappings that I’d be happy to buy it off them.
August is traditionally the time when most beekeepers take honey from their hives and part of the process involves slicing the end-caps of the comb off in order to get to the honey inside. Many beekeepers process this honey-covered wax into candles and other beeswax products but it seems that a quite a few don’t have the time or inclination to get involved with beeswax crafting. These folks will instead trade it in for fresh wax foundation or will use it as a fire-starting material. I hope to be able to expand my little business in the years to come so hopefully I’ll be known as someone who will pick up the cappings and pay a decent price for them as well.
This bargain of a double-boiler set me back £2 at a local charity shop
Since then I’ve had a few beekeepers contact me and I’ve been out to collect cappings from around the island. Beekeepers are a lovely bunch and each one I met invited me in for a coffee and chat. I was even generously given a couple of pots of honey and a book on local history with the wax. The hospitality on the Isle of Man is first class and I really feel lucky to live in a place with such warm and friendly people.
By yesterday I had a large bucket and a shopping bag completely filled with sticky cappings and I needed to process it all quickly before the honey started to attract insects or begin leaking on the floor. Though I’ve been looking into purchasing a solar extractor for this work I really wanted to save money and have the Hubster make me one. His woodworking project list is getting fairly long so I needed to go to plan B for this year at least. This plan involved heating the cappings on the stove and filtering the mixture through linen and into empty milk cartons.
Step 1: Fill the inner pot of the double boiler with wax cappings
I’d read about this process online and it seemed simple enough though I was missing a key piece of equipment – a double boiler. When you’re dealing with beeswax you don’t want to use any of your nice pots or pans since they’ll never be completely clean of wax again. The other issue I had was that I didn’t have a proper double-boiler at home anyway; I usually double up the pans I already have.
Yesterday, and quite by chance, I parked next to a small charity shop and thought I’d have a quick peek inside before I drove off. Would you believe that a sturdy old-fashioned double boiler was sitting just inside the door? It was as if it were waiting for me to pick it up. Better yet, it cost me only £2 which is my kind of bargain. All it needed was a quick scrub and it was ready to get to work.
Pure white new wax built by my own bees
The first step is layering all your work surfaces with grease-proof paper – this helps keep the mess contained and any wax that drips on it can be salvaged at the end of the process. While you’re doing that, bring water to boil in the outer pot of the double boiler. Once that’s going you need to turn the heat down to a simmer. You then fill the inner pot with wax cappings and place that pan inside the outer pan – the heat from the outer pan will melt the contents of the inside pan.
Along with my first batch of cappings went in the only beeswax I had from my own hive. The bees built these pure white combs onto the sides of the bucket feeder I had placed in their hive. I was unhappy about having to tear them down but pleased that even a little wax from my hives will make it into my products in the coming year.
Passing the melted mixture through linen and into paper milk cartons
Heating beeswax can be a dangerous business since it is flammable. This is the main reason you don’t want it in contact with direct heat, hence the double boiler. You also really have to keep an eye on the water level and make sure its doesn’t get too hot. Beeswax melts at 64°C/147°F which is contrast to the temperature water boils at which is 100°F/212°F.
It took about forty minutes for the pot of cappings to melt down and after this point I poured it from the pan through a cheese-cloth and into empty, cleaned milk cartons. Milk carton boxes are great for this step since they are already wax-lined, which prevents the beeswax from sticking. Their other great virtue is that you can tear them apart to get to the wax at the end of the process.
After the cartons were filled I removed the cheese-cloths and rolled them up on one side. Hardened they’ll make effective and delicious smelling fire-starter materials. I then covered the tops of the milk cartons so nothing could fall in and then set them aside to harden overnight.
Filtering the mixture through a cheese-cloth and extracting the hardened beeswax the next day
To be honest I thought it had all gone wrong at this point. The liquid mixture inside the cartons looked gungy and dark and I fully expected the beeswax to harden along with filthy bits of goo. I was happily surprised to find that the pure golden beeswax had risen to the top to harden as a pure mass and that the honey sank to the bottom. In between was a layer of residue that I was easily able to wash off.
After accounting for the honey that seperated from the mix and the bits of residue that I was able to isolate I now can tell you that only 13% of the cappings is actual beeswax – the rest is almost entirely honey. Definitely an added bonus but I really wish there were more wax!
Neighbourhood bees pilfering honey from sticky bags and cheese-cloths
One interesting thing that happened as I was processing the beeswax was that honeybees came in through the open doors of our office, through the house and to the kitchen where I was working. It goes to show how careful you need to be with honey since bees will smell it out and find you. We shut the doors and I shooed the bees outside but then I decided to leave the sticky carrier bags that I transported some of the wax in for them. Normally I would never leave honey out for bees since honey from the shop is from unknown sources around the world. Honey often carries bee viruses, disease and even small quantities of chemicals used in or near the origin hive. But since I knew that the hives the wax and honey came from were local and healthy I thought why not give the bees a treat.
What started off as two honeybees and a bumble bee literally turned into thousands as the day progressed – it was literally the Hubster’s worst nightmare. It got so bad today that we were worried about Postman Phil coming to the front door! I saw him stop his truck at the end of the drive but fortunately we didn’t have post today. Note to self, do not leave honey-covered rubbish around the front of the house unless you’re really trying to keep visitors away.
Honey that separated from the wax cappings
I plan to filter the beeswax a second time but am quite pleased with the quality and consistency of the wax I’ve been able to separate so far. Using a solar extractor will definitely save money on electricity but until I have one I’m confident that the double-boiler and filter method will give me lovely clean wax that will melt well into my Manx Beeswax Lip Balms. Those quarts of honey aren’t too shabby either 🙂