The beekeeping equipment catalogs are filled with all sorts of lovely and interesting candle molds. But how do we get from the hive to a candle or ornament? No matter the size of your beekeeping operation the wax has to be clean. This time we are going to focus on the small-scale beekeeper, whether newbee or not.
You may well receive descriptions of cleaning wax from other beekeepers. Listen and decide what best fits where and how you will be cleaning your wax. Those of you with three or four hives will do things differently from someone with 50 hives.
Although beautiful clean wax is our goal I wish to put forth two important items. First, and by far the most important, is safety – your safety, and your work area safety. Beeswax burns. That is why it makes such nice candles. But it can also burn down your house or work place. Please always use a water bath when melting wax. You need to fashion a double-boiler setup – outer pot with water, inner pot with wax. Never heat wax directly on a stove of any kind. If, by chance the wax does start to burn, don’t throw water on it – wax floats. Fire extinguishers suitable for kitchen fires (cooking oils burn, too, and float on water) are quite inexpensive. Buy one if you don’t have one already. Do not leave your melting project unattended. If you must leave your melting pot and go elsewhere, turn off the heat.
The second item I wish to pass on is to decide where you are going to melt, strain and pour your wax – and how you are going to keep that area clean. If you have a shed or a place where it doesn’t matter if drips of wax get everywhere then you are very lucky. If you are planning to do all of this in your kitchen – well, wax, like honey, gets everywhere, particularly on the floor. No, you will not see the drips right away. But wax accumulates dirt very well. In a few days you will see dirty spots on the kitchen floor. Grab an outdated credit card as a scraper, get down on your hands and knees and start scraping. Cover countertops with newspaper or you will be scraping those, too. Newspaper can be dangerous if used by a stovetop.
Do not ever pour molten beeswax down a drain. I mention this because beekeepers have done it. New plumbing can be expensive.
Now you need to accumulate various pots and other containers. Keep in mind that wax can be melted without damage to its color in stainless steel, aluminum and Pyrex®. Don’t even think about using your kitchen cooking pots and utensils. Instead start visiting yard sales where you can find a great assortment of pots and perhaps even metal pitchers for pouring wax into molds.
Your source of heat can be hot plates instead of the kitchen stove, especially if it is a gas stove. Some use crockpots but the inner crock can be difficult to use. Use the inner crock for your water bath and the wax in a container that fits inside. Buy an inexpensive meat thermometer so you can monitor the temperature of your wax.
Wax melts at about 143°F. The highest temperatures you want are only about 150-160°F. Remember that you wish to keep the number of times you heat wax to a minimum since aroma will be lost if overheated or repeatedly heated.
You will need some containers for your almost-clean and clean wax. These can be non-stick baking pans because the sides are sloping and the block of wax will come out easily. I recommend new ones since if used in cooking there can be residues that affect your clean wax.
Cappings always seem to be a large quantity but when melted and poured into a container the quantity will seem quite small. Newbees with two or three hives may find a non-stick muffin pan useful for clean wax. The 'wax muffins' can be accumulated until enough for a larger project like candles. They can also be sold to quilters, woodworkers and crafts people.
The wax will have to be strained. Although cappings are basically clean, bits of bees, propolis and other mystery things have to be removed. The highly annoying tiny black specks found in wax are usually soot from the smoker. Use minimal smoke when removing honey. The best wax strainer that even removes the tiny black specks is sweatshirt material used fuzzy-side up. Even if you use the pantyhose method (described later) a final straining through sweatshirt material will insure clean wax. If you do not have any used sweatshirts (either from you or your friends) you can purchase the material by the yard from fabric shops. Put any new sweatshirt material through the washing machine and dryer to remove lint and dye and sizing.
If you happen to live in an area that has water with a high iron content you may have to use distilled water or one of the commercial five-gallon carboys for cleaning. Iron affects the color, yielding wax with a dirty-khaki color instead of the lemon yellow color you want.
Now that your initial setup has been determined and you are ready to start, it’s time to choose the wax. Cappings wax will give you the best color, aroma and texture. Keep brood frame wax separate. You can use it to make fire starters or use it for a wax account with equipment suppliers.
It can be difficult for newbees, with perhaps two hives, to accumulate much wax. Nevertheless save and clean up the cappings. It may take a few years before being able to make candles or a block big enough to enter in a show. It is easier to store a block of clean wax than a pile of cappings sticky with honey. That is just dessert for ants, mice, wax moths, small hive beetles and any passing bees.
You will first melt your wax in water. Your outer water bath does not need to boil. Your inner container will hold the water and the wax. Use more water than wax or you could end up with a weird emulsion that probably can’t be used. At this point you have a choice. You can stuff a used panty hose leg with the cappings and immerse it in water until the wax melts, leaving behind bits of stuff in the panty hose. Remove the panty hose. At this point it has served its purpose. Or you can just put your cappings in the water in the inner container and let them melt.
The next step is to turn off the heat. Remove the container of water and melted wax and let it cool. When all has cooled, remove the wax block. Discard the water. That is where the residual honey is from the cappings. Keep this particular pot for your future first melts since it may have bits of propolis and other gunk stuck in it.
On the bottom of the block of wax will be stuff – propolis and other junk. Scrape the bottom of the block until it has very little junk left. Save the scrapings. Those can be melted and poured onto pinecones for firestarters.
Now take a clean container and put the dry block in. No water this time! Now this new container becomes the inner container for the water bath. Melt the wax. While waiting for the block to melt, prepare your sweatshirt material fuzzy side up on the final pot or pan. The cloth can be held on with binder clips. If the sweatshirt material is new you may have to dampen it a bit. With the wax well above the melting temperature, around 150-155°F, pour it through the cloth. Yes, wax will cool and stick to the cloth but it should be minimal.
If you wish you can clean the sweatshirt material by fastening it to a container fuzzy side down and pour boiling water through it. But at some point you will have to discard it. But it can have a use for a while. If wooden drawers are a bit sticky, rub them with the waxy part of the cloth.
Examine your clean block of beeswax. It should be a nice color from straw to lemon yellow. You should not see any dirt in or on it. The place to look is on the bottom of your block. If it is still dirty then another melt and straining would be needed. A third melt will not remove the nice aroma of beeswax.
Since beeswax picks up dirt easily, wrap your blocks in cling wrap as soon as possible. Do not put unwrapped beeswax down on a dirty surface.
It certainly is possible for you to modify the cleaning procedure to suit your particular work area and your goals for the wax. Just keep safety first in your mind.
Once you have your procedure down, the wonderful world of beeswax crafts opens up. Candles of all shapes and sizes, ornaments large and small, seasonal items, lip balms and other cosmetics, bleaching and coloring wax for seasonal candles, painting fancy candles and ornaments, beeswax sculptures, batik, and of course sales of beeswax blocks, large and small. Who knows – you may end up buying cappings from other beekeepers who do not have the time or inclination to clean up the wax and do something with it.
However, if you find that working with beeswax is not what you had in mind, do not discard your cappings. Find a beekeeper who wants them.
I realize that printed words do not always make procedures understandable. If you have a question or run into a problem you can always email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. If I don’t reply within a few days I may be out of town at a beekeeper meeting. Be patient, I will get back to you.