A couple of weekends ago I went to a beekeeping sale at a private residence with the aim of picking up some inexpensive equipment and maybe even a complete hive. Forcing my husband out of bed on a Saturday morning, I had it timed so that we arrived exactly at 10am – when the sale was scheduled to begin. Unfortunately, everyone who was interested in scooping up a deal arrived about half an hour earlier than us and claimed everything of interest. What a disappointment! But the seller took pity on me and send me home with a small tub of beeswax as a consolation gift. Though melted down from its original state, it had yet to be fully cleaned and rendered. It presented an excellent opportunity to get some practice in for next year when I hope to be processing my own beeswax.
Now if you recall from an earlier post on the Isle of Man Beekeeper’s Honey Show, you’ll remember that I mentioned a lovely gentleman beekeeper named Mr. Mills. He was definitely the dominant force at the event and won awards from everything from his artwork to frames full of honey and bowls of pure filtered beeswax. It turns out he decided to come to the beekeeping sale as well and in friendly conversation gave me some valuable advice on how to clean the beeswax.
But before I get to that, you’re probably wondering what rendering beeswax is all about. Beeswax is a waxy substance that honey bees secrete from glands on their body and use to mould into a structure called comb. It’s in this comb that they lay their eggs, nurture their young and store their food – pollen, nectar and honey. They also use it, often in conjunction with propolis, to fill any gaps or holes in their hive which might allow drafts or invaders in. In an average hive harvest, a beekeeper may be able to collect between three to eight pounds of beeswax which can be melted down and used to create new hive foundation or household products such as furniture polish and beauty creams. However, beeswax in its raw state is full of impurities such as dirt, bee parts and waste from the bees’ everyday living. Though bee hives are generally kept very clean, there is a certain accumulation of material very much in the same way as dust or occasional grime can be found in a relatively clean home.
Rendering beeswax is usually a two-step process: water-filtering and then screen filtering. Though I have yet to do the first step myself, theoretically this is what you do: place your beeswax in a vat of simmering water for about thirty minutes – this melts the wax and helps separate it from the impurities. After thirty minutes you gently tip the water out of the pot, passing it through a couple of layers of muslin to catch any stray bits of wax and of course the ‘gunk’. Hopefully at this stage your pot will be filled with golden beeswax which you can either leave in the pot or pour into other containers, depending on your method for step two. I think that the beeswax I was given had gone through this stage and was simply ready to be filtered a second time. It had been poured into a plastic tub and while the wax hardened, all the remaining dust, dirt and grime sank to the bottom. So while the top of the beeswax looked clean, the bottom was a filthy layer of material which needed to be removed.
Now Mr.Mills told me his secret to creating his beautiful cakes of beeswax was to heat the wax and pass it through lint – fuzzy side up. I assumed he was speaking of dryer lint when he told me this but thought to do a bit of internet research first just to make sure. It turns out that many beekeepers use surgical lint when rendering their beeswax. Thank goodness I looked it up! Seeing as I didn’t have any in the house I thought back to what else Mr. Mills told me and I recall him also mentioning using tights as a filter. Visions of him covertly rummaging through Mrs. Mills lingerie drawer came to mind. It turned out that I had some I no longer used as well as a coincidentally matching single sock whose mate had disappeared some time ago. In my hunt I also found a paint mask that I thought might work as a filter for wax as well. My idea was that I’d use all three at the same time.
My next step was finding an old tin can, cleaning it and taking the bottom off so that it had both an open and bottom end. Using an old can opener I then punctured two holes at the top of the can through which I could pass a bit of string (tights) through as a handle. Leaving the top open, I placed the mask over the bottom then pulled the foot part of my tights up and over the can then put the sock on over the tights. With the broken-up beeswax placed inside the can, my homemade filter was ready to go.
Beeswax will burn and/or turn dark brown if it’s heated to temperatures over 75°C (167°F) so the idea was to dangle the can over a silicone baking mould in the oven at 70°C and allow the wax to filter and drip through as it melts. Unfortunately my triple filtration system was a bit too much since after five hours in the oven nothing had even begun to come through – despite the delicious honey aroma wafting through the house. Conscious of the energy I was wasting by leaving the oven on for so long I decided to remove a couple of layers. Taking the mask and sock off and scraping the wax back into the can I then placed it back in the oven with only the tights as a filter. Three hours later and the beeswax had melted and passed through leaving only a bit of wax and dark material behind. The melted golden liquid inside the silicone mould was still transparent at that point but after spending the night inside the oven it solidified into a gorgeous golden slab.
Now today it’s on to the fun part – what to make with it? 🙂