Beeswax is a natural wax made by bees and has found many uses in various industries such as pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, and so on (1). Nowadays, beeswax is often associated with candles, art, food, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, handicrafts, musical instruments, varnishes and polishes, and industrial products such as lubricants and anti-corrosion rust inhibitors. Though beeswax is still commonly used today, historical records show that humanity has been working with the material since the ancient Egyptians back in 1550 BC (2).
Unfortunately, beeswax is a product directly obtained from animals since beeswax is produced from the honeycombs of bees. Thus, beeswax and products made from it cannot be considered vegan. Aside from the blatant exploitation of bees for producing beeswax, vegans also argue that beekeeping for both honey and beeswax poses a major environmental concern that contributes to the overall decline of bee populations around the world.
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What is Beeswax?
Although various natural waxes exist today (e.g., carnauba wax, rice bran wax, berry wax, etc.), there was a time in history when beeswax was the sole representative for commercial natural waxes (3). Beeswax is deposited at the hive by worker bees from eight different wax-producing glands. Other worker bees then collect the wax and use it to form the cells that make up the honeycombs within the beehive.
Although beeswax used to generally refer to wax produced by the European bee, Apis mellifera, other species have been found to be reliable sources of beeswax such as A. dorsata, A. florea, and A. indica.
Solid at room temperature, beeswax holds certain qualities due to its chemical composition. In varying degrees of composition, beeswax contains several fatty acids and alcohols such as palmitate, oleate esters, aliphatic alcohols, and more.
The uses for beeswax developed effectively due to its history of prior usage. In the times of ancient Egyptians, beeswax played an important role in embalming and mummification which is why it was placed in such high regard. Beeswax was also recorded in ancient Greek writings and stories such as the tale of Daedalus and Icarus, creating wings from feathers bound with beeswax.
Beeswax was also included in “The Shen Nong Book of Herbs,” a prominent medicinal book from ancient China. As written, it was believed that beeswax was a top medicinal ingredient that could be used to treat imbalances in blood and energy systems.
Beeswax can also be found prominently in the art industry for a variety of reasons. The material is a commonly used substance for sculptures. The wax used for Madam Tussaud’s wax figurines is predominantly made of beeswax mixed with a harder wax. A beeswax solution is also used throughout history in preserving bronze statues and sculptures.
Nowadays, beeswax is commonly associated with candles. Due to the specific melting temperature of beeswax, beeswax candles can remain straight in higher ambient temperatures compared to most paraffin wax candles. Beeswax is also commonly used as polish for various surfaces such as leather and wood.
Beeswax and honey production are typically performed together since beeswax and honey are the two main products of beekeeping. Once the honey has been collected, the honeycombs can then be used to acquire beeswax.
The empty honeycombs are removed from the hive. To protect the honeycomb’s structural integrity, the coms are typically separated from the frames using a knife. Once the honeycombs are all collected, they are then placed inside a large pot with water. The pot is then heated to eventually melt the honeycombs into beeswax. As the honeycombs gradually melt, more honeycombs can be placed inside the pot since the honeycombs initially take up a lot of space.
Keep the heat on until the honeycombs completely melt away and the solution can be boiled for about half an hour. After that, the contents of the pot can be poured through a strainer or several layers of cheesecloth. This filtration step removes larger contaminants and other components. After filtration, the solution is then primarily comprised of beeswax and water. The solution is left to stand overnight. During that time, the beeswax solidifies. As the beeswax cakes on top of the container, the beeswax can then be separated from the water.
Once the beeswax cake is obtained, it can then be melted again and poured through a finer material such as cloth for further purification. At this step, the melted beeswax can be poured into a container lined with parchment paper to avoid the beeswax from sticking to the container.
Is Beeswax Vegan?
Beeswax may be a natural wax, but it cannot be considered vegan since the material is obtained directly from bees. Although beekeepers claim that the practice of producing honey and beeswax does not harm the bees, it is a traditional procedure to smoke the bees to make them unconscious so that the beekeepers can remove the honeycombs from the beehives without getting stung by agitated bees.
It is also common procedure in large-scale bee farms to clip the wings of the queens to prevent them from leaving the area.
Thus, beekeeping for the sake of honey and beeswax cannot be vegan since the bees are exploited and hurt in the process.
Aside from the animal cruelty and exploitation involved, many vegans and animal rights activists also stand against beekeeping due to its effects on the environment. While animal rights have always been at the forefront of veganism, environmentalism has been a rising cause for individuals to participate in vegan efforts.
It has long been understood that bees are important members of the environment as they are highly effective pollinators – allowing flowering plants to exchange genetic material, induce fruiting and seed production, and eventually increase floral populations. While it is understandable to initially assume that beekeeping should be beneficial towards this cause, research shows that beekeeping might actually be involved in the reduction of bee populations around the world (4).
Bees are effective pollinators because they are great in numbers and are efficient when it comes to gathering their preferred food such as nectar and pollen. In a homeostatic environment, much of this nectar and pollen can feed many organisms in the food web. However, beekeeping can tend to reduce the pool for other organisms as the bees aggressively collect these first. Thus, beekeeping can aggressively outcompete other organisms that rely on the same food products – specifically local bee populations.
Beekeeping has also been known to transmit pathogens and diseases across large distances. Since beekeeping primarily involves honeybees, these species can then present as exotic populations when introduced in areas that do not natively have these honeybees. Exotic honeybees can even prioritize pollinating exotic plants compared to native ones, tipping the balances of the environment even further.