beeswax – a story from hive to candle
Most nights, once the children are in bed and the house is quiet, I light a beeswax candle. It’s a little ritual I’ve had for the past few years and one I look forward to every evening. It signals the end of the day – a time to settle in and take rest.
I choose beeswax candles because the alternatives are brimming with chemicals that I don’t want in my home. Even natural soy wax? Yes! It’s actually chemically bleached, heavy metal hydrogenated (they use nickel) soybean oil – a process that is environmentally disastrous. And because it has such an awful aroma, natural soy wax candles are always heavily fragranced. I choose not to wear perfume or burn artificial fragrance because the side effects are awful. This article explains it very succinctly.
But beeswax…beeswax is a sweet, subtle honey-scented option that iodises the air as it burns. That’s right – it purifies the air of dust, germs, particulate matter and viruses. Isn’t nature clever! If you live near a main road or any building works, the air is full of particulate matter – burn a large beeswax candle you can actually see the dirt in the pool of wax – dirt that could have ended up in your lungs.
While I embraced beeswax a long time ago, I’ve never really thought about the process from hive to candle. Suddenly intrigued by nature’s wonderful ways, I chatted to Cate from Queen B who has been making beeswax candles for 15 years (1.5 million candles and counting). She currently creates over 170,000 candles a year from beeswax sourced in NSW – each and every candle is poured, finished and packed by hand. Here she explains the process from bee to hive to candle (it’s a great story to share with the children next time you light a candle):
A beehive typically has 1 queen, around 49,900 female worker bees and 100 or so drones. The queen bees only job is to lay eggs. The drones are only there to mate with the queen bee on her once-in-a-life time mating flight! So all work inside and outside of the hive is undertaken by the worker bees. Worker bees live for 4 – 6 weeks during Spring and Summer, undertaking a variety of roles during that time – from housekeeping, to tending to the queen, to scouting for sources of flower nectar, foraging, ripening flower nectar into honey, collecting pollen, guarding the hive and undertaking.
For three or so days of a worker bee’s life, they secrete wax (“beeswax”) from wax glands on their stomach. They use this wax to build honeycomb to store honey and to ‘cap’ the cells when the honey is ripened. Bees consume around 10kgs of honey to make 1kg of beeswax (it is very energy intensive work). Beeswax is literally ripened flower nectar converted into wax.
According to all known laws of aviation, there is no way that a bee should be able to fly, let alone carry twice her body weight in flower nectar, let alone somehow take that flower nectar, ripen it into honey and then somehow miraculously turn it into beeswax. A worker bee produces around 1/8th of a pinkie nail of wax in her lifetime. So, one of our 20cm Dinner Candles for instance is literally the life’s work of around 3000 female worker bees. We see it as an enormous privilege to create light from this extraordinary material from nature.
So, the bees make honey and beeswax and collect pollen and propolis. Our beekeepers – all second, third or fourth generation because they employ more traditional practices and have been taught from a very young age how to observe their bees and to intuitively know what is going on with their girls and what they need – are really caretakers for the bees. It is their job to ensure that their bees have everything they need to be in good health – which means both high yielding honey flows (for carbohydrate for bees) and good pollen flows (for protein for the girls). There are very few flowers that are high yielding in both, so beekeepers will typically alternate between the two when choosing where to take their hives.
When beekeepers harvest honey, they remove a frame from the hive and first cut off the “cappings” wax – ie the wax on top of the honeycomb cell with ripened honey in it. It is this cappings wax that we use in Queen B candles. It is the purest, cleanest beeswax in the hive. Our beekeepers all employ an old method of extraction which ensures that our wax is never overheated (overheating changes the structure of the wax which means it doesn’t burn as well as a candle). They then clean this wax once to remove some of the dirt, dust and impurities.
Cate knows that beeswax from different floral sources all burn differently, so she sources beeswax from specific honey flows to ensure she has a light, clean wax that burns cleanly. “I typically pick up wax from our beekeepers in 1 – 2 tonne lots and we then clean the wax for a further 48 hours (using just water, time and filters) to remove every bit of dust that we can. This ensures a beautiful golden flame and a long burning candle.”
Lucky for us, 100% Australian beeswax is the very best in the world. Why? Because it’s the only beeswax in the world naturally free from chemical miticides (Australia is the only country in the world without the varroa mite, hence there’s no need to use chemical miticides).
Queen B candles only have two ingredients, the second of which is a cotton wick. I presumed that any old wick would do the job, but Cate admits that she spends hours upon hours burning cotton wicks to ensure they have persistent burning capability.
“We have over 1,000 different pure cotton wicks – so wick testing is possibly the most important job that I do (but also the most frustrating)! The difference between the ‘right’ wick in a candle and the ‘wrong’ wick can often only be visible or noticeable after 10, 20, 50 hours of burning. I can spend all those days thinking “yay” I’ve found it and then bang, it all goes to shit! Ultimately though it is honouring the work done by our bee sisters to keep persisting and to find the perfect wick. And when you have the perfect wick and the gift that is beeswax, you have a candle that is absolutely unrivalled in terms of burning experience and healing properties,” she says.
While beeswax is significantly more expensive that its soy and paraffin alternatives, there’s is no debate when it comes to which wax is better for the earth. Beeswax also:
- burns for 5 times longer
- doesn’t smoke over the ceiling
- supports Australian beekeepers and the regional communities they live in
- is safe to breathe around
- purifies/ionises the air
- supports artisan skills
- beneficial to the environment and the planet
Cate is passionate about running an ethical, earth-friendly business which ultimately requires a lot of time and energy. She uses recycled packaging, embraces traditional candle-making techniques (no machinery necessary) and celebrates the magic of bees with her flourishing business.
If you would like to try Queen B candles for yourself, enjoy 10% off storewide with the code: PSBEE (code can be used once and is valid till Dec 21st).
This post contains affiliate links that, when purchased, earn me a small commission.