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46 | September 2004 | Bee World 85(3): 46–50 (2004) www.ibra.org.uk
New Zealand, a country that has many
Of course bees do provide enormous beneﬁts
to mankind, and it is always going to be difﬁcult
to persuade beekeepers that their bees could
be doing harm. However, we should not
regard bees as universally benign. The
precautionary principle argues that we should
prevent further deliberate release of exotic
bee species (such as of bumble bees in
mainland Australia). Unlike many of the other
impacts that man has on the environment,
introduction of exotic species is usually
irreversible. It would also be sensible to avoid
placing honey bee hives within environmentally
sensitive areas, particularly areas where the
native ﬂora is threatened by invasion with
honey bee-pollinated weed species.
1. BARTHELL, J F; RANDALL, J M.; THORP, R W;
WENNER, AM (2001) Promotion of seed set in
yellow star-thistle by honey bees: Evidence of
an invasive mutualism. Ecological Applications 11:
2. GOKA, K; OKABE, K; YONEDA, M; NIWA, S
(2001) Bumblebee commercialization will cause
worldwide migration of parasitic mites.
Molecular Ecology 10: 2095–2099.
3. GOULSON, D (2003) Effects of introduced bees
on native ecosystems. Annual Review of Ecology
and Systematics 34: 1–26.
4. GOULSON, D; DERWENT, L C (2004) Synergistic
interactions between exotic honeybees and
exotic weeds: pollination of Lantana camara in
Australia. Weed Research 44: 195–202.
5. GROSS, C L; MACKAY, D (1998) Honeybees
reduce ﬁtness in the pioneer shrub Melastoma
afﬁne (Melastomataceae). Bioogical Consevation
6. MALL, T K; LOVETT-DOUST, J; LOVETT-DOUST,
L; MULLIGAN, G A (1992) The biology of
Canadian weeds. 100. Lythrum salicaria. Canadian
Journal of Plant Science 72: 1305–1330.
7. MCDADE, L A; KINSMAN, S (1980) The impact of
ﬂoral parasitism in two neotropical
hummingbird-pollinated plant species. Evolution
8. STANTON, M L (1987) Reproductive biology of
petal color variants in wild populations of
Raphanus sativus II: Factors limiting seed
production. American Journal of Botany 74:
9. STOUT, J C; KELLS, A R; GOULSON, D (2002)
Pollination of a sleeper weed, Lupinus arboreaus,
by introduced bumblebees in Tasmania. Bioogical
Conservation 106: 425–434.
10. THOMSON, D (2004) Competitive interactions
between the invasive European honey bee and
native bumble bees. Ecology 85: 458–470.
Ecology and Evolution Group, School of
Biological Sciences, University of
Southampton, Bassett Crescent East,
Southampton, SO16 7PX, UK
The Greek philosopher Aristotle believed
that beeswax originated in ﬂowers, and this
theory predominated until the Renaissance.
In 1744 the German scientist Hornbostel26
reported that bees themselves produce the
wax. This report was ignored by the
scientiﬁc community until Hunter in 179228
and Huber in 181427 published their work. In
1903 the process of wax synthesis was
described in detail by Dreyling.20
In this mini-review the main quality issues on
beeswax will be discussed, without going into
details, which can be found in the cited
Wax production in beekeeping
Bees need wax as construction material for
their combs. They produce it in their wax
glands, which are fully developed in 12- to
18-day-old workers. In older bees the wax
glands diminish their activity, however, in
emergency situations wax synthesis can be
reactivated. The greatest quantities of wax
are produced during the growth phase of
honey bee colonies, under moderate climate
conditions during April to June in temperate
The main raw materials for wax formation
are carbohydrates, i.e. the honey sugars
fructose, glucose and sucrose.51The ratio of
sugar to wax can vary from three to 30 : 1, a
ratio of around 20 : 1being typical for
central Europe.51The stronger the colony,
the smaller the ratio, and the more
economical the wax production for the
colony. One Langstroth frame, containing
only 100 g of wax can hold between two and
four kg of honey.
Wax production and comb construction
activity in the honey bee colony are
determined by following factors:
●Nectar ﬂow: the greater the ﬂow, the
more combs are needed for storage.
●Brood rearing (egg laying): the more
eggs are laid, the more comb cells are
●The presence of a queen: only colonies
with a queen build combs.
●Temperature: temperatures higher than
15 °C favour comb building activity.
●The presence of pollen as a protein
The wax economy of bees seems to function
according to the supply and demand
principle; there is no unnecessary wax
Apis mellifera produce wax in their specialized
wax glands, found on the ventral side of the
abdomen. A bee has four pairs of glands. The
liquid wax is delivered by these glands and
cools down immediately to form ﬁne, white
wax scales. These scales are taken by the
hind legs and processed with the
Give me some wax that bees have made
And I will offer you in trade
A candle that is aromatic
Pure, unique and charismatic
by Grant D Morse
THE PERFUME OF BEESWAX
This article concentrates on the main quality issues of Apis mellifera beeswax: production by bees and
processing by beekeepers and manufacturers, overall chemical composition, as well as sensory and
physicochemical characteristics. The main quality issues today are adulteration and contamination.
Contamination from the environment being relatively small, the main contaminants are synthetic and
persistent acaricides used in beekeeping. Measures for prevention of contamination are discussed.
Information on beeswax economy, as well as on beeswax uses is given.
www.ibra.org.uk September 2004 | Bee World | 47
mouthparts. A wax scale weighs about 1mg,
so that about one million scales are needed
to produce one kg of wax. More details on
the biology of beeswax are given elsewhere.24
The colour of the freshly produced beeswax
is white, later it turns to yellow. This yellow
colour originates from propolis and pollen
colorants. Beeswax has a characteristic
odour, originating from the bees, honey,
propolis and pollen.
Each year beekeepers should discard the old
combs, thus stimulating the bees to build
new combs. On the one hand this is a
hygienic measure, on the other hand it
serves the beekeeper to increase wax
production. The dark colour of old combs is
caused by larval faeces, pupal skins and from
propolis. Old combs must be exchanged
regularly at an interval of about two to three
years, to be melted down for the production
of pure wax. Small-scale wax melters for
home wax production are available, but most
beekeepers give their combs to wax
manufacturers, who also produce foundation
comb. The yield of pure wax depends on the
method of wax production and on the
proportion of old honeycombs used. Usually
yields from 30 to 50% are obtained, but they
can be nearly 100% if freshly built
honeycombs are used.
The practical details for production of
beeswax from combs is described
extensively elsewhere.17The quality of pure
beeswax obtained depends greatly on the
production methods used. There are two
wax extraction methods: melting – the most
frequently used method – and chemical
extraction. Wax can be melted by boiling
water, steam or by electrical or solar power.
Chemical extraction by solvents is feasible
only in a laboratory, where only small-scale
wax production is needed.
After melting and cleaning, beeswax normally
has a beautiful yellow colour. If it is dark for
any reason (e.g. from overheating or the
presence of metals) it can be brightened
simply by exposing it to the sun17or by
chemical means (see ‘Factors in producing
high-quality beeswax’). The use of
complexing agents which bind the metals has
also been proposed17but these chemicals are
problematic from a toxicological and
ecological point of view.
Wax blocks are dried and stored in a dark
and cool place. For best preservation of
colour and aroma, they can be stored in
wrapping-paper, placed on shelves or in
containers made of stainless steel, glass or
Details on beeswax manufacturing can be
found elsewhere.10, 17, 43, 50
●Heating at too high temperatures and for too long may damage the wax and darken its
●Wax should not be heated in containers made of steel, aluminium, zinc or copper
because these metals can discolour the wax turning it dark. Do not use lead containers
because of contamination. Stainless steel is most suitable.
●Purify beeswax by melting it in a water-bath with water at 70-80 °C for at least 8 hours.
Use only the pure upper layer of wax.
●Combs containing fermented honey should not be used as this gives the wax an ‘off’
●Heat-resistant spores of American foulbrood (Paenibacillus larvae larvae) are not killed by
boiling wax in water. Only heating under pressure (1400 hPa) at 120 °C for 30 minutes
kills all spores.38
●Water-wax emulsions can occur if hard water is used. Soft water with a low mineral
content should be used if such problems arise. However, in some cases, water-wax
emulsions can occur even with soft water. It is most important that raw molten wax in
contact with water is kept below 90 °C.
●Use 2–3 g of oxalic acid per kg wax and 1litre of water to bind calcium, prevent
emulsion and to brighten wax at the same time.46
●Wax brightens also by adding acids: 2 g citric acid or oxalic acid, or 1ml concentrated
sulfuric acid per kg wax and 1litre of water.
●Wax can be bleached white by adding hydrogen peroxide. It is essential that all the
peroxide is used up in the bleaching process. Excess peroxide can cause problems in the
manufacture of creams and ointments.
●After melting, the wax is not yet pure enough. For additional cleaning, heated water
tanks made from high-grade steel are suitable. The wax should remain for some time
(best left over night) in the water-bath at a temperature of 75–80 °C. Since wax is lighter
than water, it ﬂoats. The dirt that sinks to the lower layer of the wax must be scraped off
after cooling. Under industrial conditions liquid wax is cleaned by ﬁltration. Wax can also
be puriﬁed by hot ﬁltration.
●Let the wax cool down as slowly as possible and avoid all movement of the container
●The use of solvents to purify beeswax will result in a loss of some of the aroma
FACTORS IN PRODUCING HIGH-QUALITY BEESWAX
Component Quantity g/100g Number of components
Monoesters 35 1010
Triesters 3 5 20
OH-monoesters 4 6 20
OH-polyesters 8 5 20
Acid esters 1720
Acid polyesters 2 5 20
Total esters 67 44 134
Free acids 12810
Others 6 7 ?
Total 100 74 at least 210
TABLE 1. Major and minor components of Apis mellifera beewax.47
Beeswax is an extremely complex material
containing over 300 different substances.47 It
consists mainly of esters of higher fatty acids
and alcohols. Apart from esters, beeswax
contains small quantities of hydrocarbons,
acids and other substances (see table 1). In
addition, approximately 50 aroma
components have been identiﬁed.22 The wax
produced by different subspecies of Apis
mellifera have the same composition, but
some of the components are in different
The composition of the wax differs between
Apis ﬂorea and Apis cerana, and also from Apis
mellifera wax.13Further detailed information
on composition and properties of beeswax
can be found in other publications.6,31,35
Beeswax is a natural product and no
additives are permitted. Examination of the
sensory characteristics (e.g. odour and
colour) of beeswax allows a simple, quick
quality check. Wax adulteration can be
detected by different methods.
Determination of sensory and
physicochemical characteristics according to
the Pharmacopoeia3(table 2) does not
guarantee that the wax has not been
adulterated, although in some cases they can
give hints on possible adulteration. Today
adulteration is mostly detected by gas
chromatography (GC) or liquid
chromatography to determine the
components of the wax.1,12,14,33,34,42,45 In the
special case of adulteration with carnauba
wax, a simple biological test can be also
The main contaminants of beeswax are
chemicals used in beekeeping, while
contamination from the environment seems
to be less important.7Traces of organic
pollutants have been found in beeswax.2,21,23,32
Only traces of some pesticides were
detected in a recent study on Swiss beeswax,
where 69 common pesticides were
examined.11 Beeswax is contaminated mainly
by lipophylic (fat soluble) acaricides in the
range between 0.5 and 10 mg/kg.8,44, 49 A long-
term monitoring study on Swiss beeswax
examining all major organic contaminants,
originating from beekeeping, has been carried
out in our research centre since 1991(ﬁg. 1)
In this study the long-term behaviour of
synthetic substances used in beekeeping has
been studied. The investigations show that
the acaricide concentration in wax increases
with increasing number of acaricide
applications (e.g. of tau-ﬂuvalinate) but
decreases very slowly after acaricide use has
ceased (e.g. bromopropylate). The half-life of
an acaricide in beeswax, i.e. the time which
will elapse for disappearance of the acaricide
depending on the initial acaricide
concentration, is about ﬁve years. Let us take
as an example bromopropoylate: this
acaricide is no longer in use in Switzerland
since 1991, when new and more efﬁcient
acaricides like coumaphos and tau-ﬂuvalinate
were introduced on the market.
Bromopropylate levels are diminishing
steadily and will probably drop below the
present limit of detection of 0.1mg/kg after
As beeswax is used in cosmetics and
pharmaceuticals, it should contain minimal
amounts of contaminants. Unfortunately,
there are no maximum residue limits (MRLs)
for contaminants. For beeswax used in
48 | September 2004 | Bee World www.ibra.org.uk
FIG. 1. Monitoring of organic pollutants from beekeeping in Swiss beeswax. Representative
samples of all wax produced in Switzerland was taken in the frame of a long-term
Sensory and physical characteristics
Colour yellow to yellow-brown
Upon breakage* ﬁne-granular, blunt, not crystalline
Consistency* Should not stick upon cutting
Melting point 61–65 °C
Refractive index (at 75 °C) 1.440–1.445
Acidic number 18–23
Esteriﬁcation number 70–80
Peroxide number at least 8
Authenticity* no adulterants
Contamination* according to requirements or as low as possible
TABLE 2. Properties and quality criteria for beeswax according to the Pharmacopoeia.3
organic beekeeping in countries like Italy,
Germany and Switzerland, MRLs of between
0.1and 1mg/kg for each acaricide have been
proposed. These limits will guarantee that no
measurable amounts of acaricides can diffuse
from wax into honey.
Other fat-soluble substances used in
beekeeping, such as p-dichlorobenzene, used
against wax moths, can also contaminate
beeswax (ﬁg. 1).9,48
Another potential problem for the quality of
beeswax used for beekeeping is the presence
of American foulbrood (AFB) (Penibacillus
larvae larvae) spores. Indeed, only heating of
wax at 140 °C for 30 minutes will destroy
the spores.38 On the other hand,
experiments have shown, that only very high
contamination with spores might cause
AFB.41In this work it was concluded, that
normal contamination of commercial
beeswax with P. l. larvae spores is not likely
to cause AFB.
Preventive measures against contamination
Acaricides cannot be removed from wax
because of their different chemical structure.
The best strategy to improve wax quality is
to use non-toxic natural organic acids in
alternative varroa control.29 It has been found
that residues of synthetic acaricides can be
reduced rapidly below the detection limits by
exchanging the old contaminated foundations
by residue free ones.29 The contaminants,
used for the control of wax moths (e.g. p-
dichlorobenzene and naphthaline) can be
avoided by using alternative control
●Storage of combs in a cool bright place at
5–15 °C with good air circulation.
●Repeated storage for more than 10 hours
each time in a freezer.
●Use of non-toxic chemicals like sulfur,
acetic or formic acid or application of
Bacillus thuringiensis for successful wax
Nearly all commercial wax is produced by
Apis mellifera, mainly A. m. ligustica. It is
difﬁcult to obtain reliable ﬁgures on wax
production, as the greater part of beeswax is
used in beekeeping for producing comb
foundation. Of all bee products the
economic importance of beeswax is second
after that of honey. It is estimated that its
production is about 1.5 to 2.5% of that of
honey.19Thus, based on FAO Comtrade
statistics, 1.19 million tonnes of honey were
produced in 1991, and between 17 850 to
29 750 tonnes of wax were produced during
the same period.30 The same source cites the
following ﬁgures on the trade of beeswax:
‘In world trade statistics beeswax is grouped
with other insect waxes. Nevertheless,
beeswax is a major component of insect
waxes, and the trade value can be safely
assumed to be that of beeswax. Based on
the information derived from the
COMTRADE database, total value of the
insect waxes traded internationally during
1988, 1989, 1990 and 1991was 23.63, 23.27,
26.08 and 23.35 million US$, respectively.
During 1992, major exporting countries
were China (14.9%), United Republic of
Tanzania (11.4%), Germany (11.1%), Canada
(7.0%), the Netherlands (6.3%), Brazil (6.1%),
Japan (5.7%), USA (4.8%) and Ethiopia (3.7%);
collectively accounting for 71% of the total
trade volume in insect waxes. Australia,
France, Chile, UK, Dominion Republic and
New Zealand were some of the minor
Comtrade statistics have mixed
reﬁned/bleached wax and raw wax
production data. However, there are no
other statistical sources which do this
separation. The major exporting countries of
raw beeswax for the same year were: China,
Tanzania, Canada, Brazil and Ethiopia,
together with Australia, France, Chile, New
Zealand and the Central African Republic.40
In the main, beeswax exported from
Germany, the Netherlands, UK and USA was
re-exported reﬁned/bleached wax, produced
out of the raw wax of the above countries.40
The USA is a major raw beeswax supplier,
consuming most of its own production, being
also a worldwide supplier of reﬁned wax.40
According to Comtrade statistics the price
per tonne of beeswax in 1991was from
US$3300 to US$3600. 30 There are no new
ﬁgures on wax trade. Other earlier ﬁgures
on wax production and trade are given
elsewhere.19As a major part of the
commercial beeswax is now contaminated by
acaricides,44 there is an increased need on
the market for residue-free beeswax.
Besides its use for foundation, which is
probably the main use, wax is also used for
the following purposes: cosmetics (25–30%),
pharmaceutical products (25–30%), candles
(20%) and other purposes (10–20%).19
Beeswax is often preserved in archaeological
deposits and so there is plenty of evidence
for its early use.18Beeswax candles have been
used by early mankind in religious
ceremonies. Beeswax ﬁgures have survived in
royal Egyptian tombs dating from 3400 BC.19
Throughout history beeswax has been used
in commerce and business as a document
seal. One of the most important uses of
beeswax is in cire-perdue, or lost-wax
casting.18This technique is very old and was
known in different high cultures such as in
Sumeria, India, China and Egypt. Many of the
world’s most famous statues were produced
using the lost-wax casting process. Beeswax
is used in batik art. The word batik is of
www.ibra.org.uk September 2004 | Bee World | 49
FIG. 2. Wax angels make music by candlelight. Wax was used for many different purposes
since ancient times. Today, making candles and ﬁgures out of beeswax is also very
Indonesian origin, where batik art was
invented. Beeswax has other minor uses:
used as an ingredient in the restoration of
pictures, polish materials, chewing gum,
nursery grafting, musical instruments etc.
Beeswax is added to paints, polish, cosmetics
and is used for coating food and tablets.
In cosmetics beeswax is used as an ingredient
of creams, ointments and lotions. It has
antibacterial properties36 and when applied to
the skin improves its elasticity and makes it
look fresh and smooth. Warm beeswax has
excellent warming properties when applied
against inﬂammation of muscles, nerves and
joints. The use of beeswax in apitherapy is
dealt with in detail elsewhere.16,39
More details concerning the different uses of
beeswax, as well as of its importance in use,
trade and history are given elsewhere.17,19,24,25,37
1. AICHHOLZ, R; LORBEER, E (2000) Investigation of
combwax of honeybees with high-temperature
gas chromatography and high-temperature gas
chromatography-chemical ionization mass
spectrometry, II: Chemical ionization mass
spectrometry. Journal of Chromatography, A
2. ANDERSON, J F; WOJTAS, M A (1986) Honey
bees (Hymenoptera: Apidae) contaminated with
pesticides and polychlorinated biphenyls. Journal
of Economic Entomology 79: 1200–1205.
3. ANONYMOUS (2002) European pharmacopoeia.
Council of Europe; Strasbourg, France (4th
4. AQUINO, I S; ABRAMSON, C I; PAYTON, M E
(1999) A rapid bioassay for detection of
adulterated beeswax. Journal of Entomological
Science 34(3): 265–272.
5. BEVERLY, M B; KAY, P T; VOORHEES, K J (1995)
Principal component analysis of the
pyrolysismass spectra from African, Africanized
hybrid, and European beeswax. Journal of
Analytical and Applied Pyrolysis 34: 251–263.
6. BLOMQUIST, G J; JACKSON, L L (1979) Chemistry
and biochemistry of insect waxes. Progress in
Lipid Research 17: 319–345.
7. BOGDANOV, S; IMDORF, A; KILCHENMANN, V;
CHARRIÈRE, J D; FLURI, P (2003) The
contaminants of the bee colony. Bulgarian Journal
of Veterinary Medicine 6(2): 59–70.
8. BOGDANOV, S; KILCHENMANN, V; IMDORF, A
(1998) Acaricide residues in some bee products.
Journal of Apicultural Research 37(2): 57–67.
9. BOGDANOV, S; KILCHENMANN, V; SEILER, K;
PFEFFERLI, H; FREY, T; ROUX, B; WENK, P;
NOSER, J (2004) Residues of p-dichlorobenzene
in honey and beeswax. Journal of Apicultural
Research 43(1): 14–16.
10. BOGDANOV, S; MATZKE, A (2003) Bienenwachs -
ein duftender Baustoff, In Matzke, A; Bogdanov,
S (eds) Der Schweizerische Bienenvater,
Bienenprodukte und Apitherapie.
Fachschriftenverlag VDRB; Winikon,
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11. BOGDANOV, S; RYLL, G; ROTH, H (2003)
Pesticide residues in honey and beeswax
produced in Switzerland. Apidologie 34(5):
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16. CHERBULIEZ, T (2001) Apitherapy.
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20. DREYLING, L (1905) Die wachsbereitenden Organe
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21. ESTEP, C B; MENON, G N; WILLIAMS, H E; COLE,
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Bulletin of Environmental Contamination and
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22. FERBER, C E M; NURSTEN, H E (1977) The aroma
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32. JAN, J; CERNE, K (1993) Distribution of some
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50 | September 2004 | Bee World www.ibra.org.uk
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