How to Clean Raw Beeswax

by Julie Tennis on December 16, 2017

I was several years into beekeeping before I learned how to process wax. I had tried it once, early on, and ended up with such a mess in the metal bowl I was using that I just hid the bowl away rather than figure out how to fix it. Now I know that having clean wax to make candles and other products is all about having the right tools.

You will need the following equipment:
• a crockpot
• a slotted spoon
• a heat gun
• a makeshift double-boiler
• a small, fine-mesh metal sieve
• Charmin’s toilet paper
• a second tin can
• an ice cube tray or silicon wax mold

Ideally, you’ll want to have a set of these tools just for processing wax. It is time-consuming to clean wax from these items (except for the heat gun and the bottom pot of your “double-boiler”), and slumgum is very difficult to remove from the crockpot and the top pot of your double-boiler.

(Slumgum is the crud that separates out of the wax. It’s a mix of honey and other impurities cooking into a sticky, frothy brown goo.)

There are three steps to processing wax:
• First Melt – where you remove the large debris, such as cocoons
• Second Melt – where you filter out the small debris
• Third Melt – where you pour the filtered wax into molds

Step One

The first melt occurs in the crockpot. Add three inches of water in the bottom of the pot. Add the raw wax. Turn on the heat. It only takes 15-30 minutes for all the wax to melt, depending on how much you added.

When the wax has melted, use a slotted spoon to scoop out the floating debris – slumgum and old cocoons. These things are difficult to see against the black backdrop of the crockpot, so be patient and take your time. The more crud you get out now the less you have to deal with later. Dump the slumgum into a paper bag (it makes great fire starter). When the slotted spoon becomes too encased, peel off the wax and put it in the pot to remelt, or use the heat gun to melt it back into the pot.

Let the wax cool. The layer of water, in addition to absorbing some of the impurities, will keep the wax suspended from the bottom of the crockpot while it cools. The wax will contract as it cools, usually pulling free from the crockpot walls.

You’ll now have a nice oval of wax which is convenient for storing. There will likely be a small chunks of slumgum and cocoons embedded in the wax, but you can remove those during step two. If you’re going to store your wax, rinse thoroughly under lukewarm water to dislodge any residual honey and loose debris.

Step Two

The second melt occurs in your double-boiler. I use a makeshift double-boiler so I don’t have to worry about ruining a pot. You can use a tin can, just be sure you’ve rigged it up so that it can’t tip over in your pot.

Place two to three inches of water in your bottom pot. Put your tin can in the water and put your wax from Step One into the can. Place the burner on high. Once the water starts to boil, turn the temperature down to medium. The water will remain hot enough to melt the wax without throwing boiling water into the can. Do not leave your wax unattended.

Once the wax is liquefied, line a fine mesh metal sieve with Charmin’s toilet paper and place the sieve over your second can. (My sister tested numerous materials as filters for cleaning wax and found Charmin to be the superior choice.) Place the can on a pot holder or some other insulating device to protect your countertop. Slowly and carefully pour the liquid wax through the filter into the second can. The wax will solidify as you work, clogging up your filter. The heat of the liquid wax that you’re pouring through will help to clear a path, but you can also use the heat gun on its lowest setting to get things flowing again. Be careful not to blow wet wax all over your work space.

Eventually the toilet paper will become clogged with slumgum. Twist up the dry corners of the toilet paper and press down to squeeze the remaining wax out of the slumgum, then toss the used toilet paper into a bag for later use as fire starter. You will likely go through several squares of Charmin before you’re finished filtering the wax.

Step Three

The third melt also occurs in your double-boiler. By the time you’ve finished filtering the wax, the first pours will have started to solidify. Place the can into the hot water of the double-boiler pot to re-melt. When it is sufficiently liquified, pour the clean wax into the squares of an ice cube tray or into your wax or candle mold.

And that’s it – you’ve processed your wax! It’s a time-consuming process but it provides you with another product from the hive that you can use to make candles, lip balm, salve, and numerous other wax-based items.

I’d love to hear what you’re making with wax from your bees – please share resources in the comments below.

So You Want to Be a Beekeeper?

by Julie Tennis on October 29, 2017

When you’re a beekeeper, your friends will ask you to remove bees from all sorts of difficult-to-reach places.

You start early in hopes of getting the honeybee colony removed from the awning before the heat of the day settles in around you like a wet fur coat. But there’s no ladder at the site, and you have to drive 40 minutes round-trip to get yours, so there went the cool morning hours.

Now you’re up on the ladder, which won’t rest flush against the side of the building, so you’re standing with your thigh pressed against the edge of the ladder, torso angled over the side, hoping you don’t shift your weight the wrong way and fall in a heaping mess of beekeeper and honeycomb onto the slate pavers below.

The first sections of comb come out easy. They’re beautiful light yellow and built in parallel sheets that pry easily from the ceiling. Each feels like a chunk of gold as you gingerly slither down the ladder to deposit the treasure into a bucket. “That was so easy,” you think, gazing at the remaining three-quarters of the hive, imagining you’ll be done within the hour.

The next section of comb is gnarled and interwoven. It is well-attached to the ceiling and joists. It doesn’t come out easily. You have to break the comb off in pieces and now honey is leaking out everywhere – all over your gloves, onto your hood, and down the ladder, forming puddles on the ground below. The honey is so thick on your gloves that you have to wipe it off onto your coveralls just so you can grip your hive tool. Spectators pace, just out of reach of the bees, anxious for a chance to sink their teeth into a chunk of raw honeycomb. Sweat drips off your brow, sweat trickles down your back, your armpits feel juicy. There’s nothing you can do about any of it, you’re covered head to toe in protective gear. You resign yourself to being a hot, sticky, sweaty mess.

Hours later you pull the last bit of comb from the cavity and you scrape as much of the leftover wax off the ceiling as possible but your hive tool keeps catching on the damn roofing nails. You give up and spend the next couple of hours pulling bees out of the pounds of honeycomb you’ve piled on top of their new home, a wooden box containing ten frames of wax and comb ready for a queen bee and her workers to start raising the next generation of bees. By the time you wrap up, you’ve been on the ladder for six hours.

You place the new beehive on the awning in hopes that the rest of the bees will move in. They never do. You’ll come back the next morning to gather up the stubborn gals who’ve clustered at the site of their old hive. You’ll scoop them up and dump them into the box. You’ll come back and do this again in the evening. You’ll do it one more time early the next morning and then pack up the box and bees and take them all home.

Now you’re exhausted, over-heated, dehydrated and hungry. You decide to never do a cut out again. It’s no fun removing an established colony out of a space that they’ve chosen to occupy, inadvertently killing hundreds of bees and making one hell of a sticky mess in the process. Sometimes it needs to be done. Sometimes the homeowner just doesn’t want bees around. Sometimes the bees have chosen a nest site poorly, such as in a chimney. But you agree with yourself to never do a cut-out again.

The next day you get a call asking you to remove a colony from a wall.

Honey Primer – Part 2: Out of the Hive, Into the Jar

by Julie Tennis on September 15, 2017

This is the second half of a two-part article about honey. Click here to read how honey is made.

Honey is highly-refined flower nectar. Different flowers yield different amounts of nectar – some are generous, some have none at all. On average though, we can say that each flower generally produces less than half a milligram of nectar (80% of which is water).

Different flower nectars have varying levels of glucose, fructose and sucrose as well as other trace elements. These characteristics show up in the honey as varieties in color, aroma and tendency towards crystallization, as can be seen in these two examples from the same colony.

Honey that is higher in glucose is more prone to crystallization. Those with a very high percentage of glucose will crystallize almost immediately after harvesting (such as honey from the nectar of brassicas). Some honeys, such as that made from the nectar of ivy flowers, will even crystallize in the honeycomb cell! Some nectars, like that from the tupelo tree, have a very low percentage of glucose, and may never crystallize. An important thing to note is that crystallization is a natural process, and indicative of pure honey. It doesn’t mean your honey has “gone bad.”

Sometimes though, crystallization can lead to fermentation. When honey crystallizes, the glucose comes out of suspension. This frees up some water that was tied up in the complex chemistry of the honey. This released water can raise the moisture content enough for the honey to begin to ferment. Sometimes when honey ferments, it will create a layered effect, with the crystallized honey below and the converted sugars above.

To avoid crystallization of your honey, try storing it in your freezer. The cold temperatures make the liquid more viscous, and the crystallization process is slowed. If you want to make crystallized honey liquid again, a warm-water bath is the best route to take. Avoid using the microwave and don’t place your jar of honey into an actively boiling pot. Repeated exposure to high temperatures can cause your honey to degrade.

Fermentation can also occur if your honey isn’t stored in air-tight containers. Honey is naturally hygroscopic, meaning it will absorb moisture from its surroundings. (This is why it is so effective on wounds – it kills bacteria by dehydrating them.) One of the by-products of fermentation is the formation of carbon dioxide, which can form long feathery patterns such as in this knotweed honey or a foam-like film on the surface of your honey. I have used this altered honey without ill effect, but if left too long, fermentation and carbon dioxide can change the flavor of the honey.

To avoid fermentation, keep your honey in well-sealed containers and store below 40-degrees F. Between 50 and 65-degrees is ideal for fermentation. Apparently, if you start to see streaks of hydrogen peroxide forming in your honey, warming it to melt the crystals will halt the fermentation process, because re-liquefying the glucose crystals will decrease the overall percentage of water, making the conditions inhospitable to yeast growth. Once re-heated however, be sure to use that honey up quickly.

Thanks for reading my short primer on honey. What other questions do you have about honey that were not answered in this article? (Submit your questions in the comments below.)

Honey Primer – Part 1: How Honey is Made

August 29, 2017

Honey is a precious resource, produced by the labor of hundreds of thousands of worker bees. It starts out as nectar, produced by flowers. Honey bees collect this nectar in a special compartment in their digestive tract called the “honey stomach.” While in the honey stomach, the nectar is subject to digestive enzymes which begin […]

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How to Keep Your Bees Out of Your Neighbor’s Pool

July 31, 2017

In the decade I’ve been keeping bees, the only neighbor complaint I’ve heard was when the folks next door had a pool and found “my” bees floating in the water. Honeybees require water for the same reasons we do: to keep their tissues and organs in operating condition, to remove wastes from their body, and […]

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What is Swarming?

June 30, 2017

A honeybee colony is like a sea anemone. Each bee is like a cell within a larger organism, some moving food, some removing waste, and some making stings. And when the organism wants to reproduce it splits in two, like the binary fission of a sea anemone. Individual honeybees hatch from eggs laid by the […]

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