Many bee species produce wax, but only the wax of the honeybee species Apis mellifera will be referred to here. Of all the primary bee products wax has been, and remains, the most versatile and most widely used material.

Young bees in the hive, after feeding the young brood with royal jelly, in their third week of life, take part in the construction of the hive. Engorged with honey and resting suspended for 24 hours together with many other bees in the same position, 8 wax glands on the underside of the abdomens of the young bees secret small wax platelets. These are scraped off by the bee, chewed and masticated into pliable pieces with the addition of saliva and a variety of enzymes. Once chewed, attached to the comb and re-chewed several times, they finally form part of this architectural masterpiece, a comb of hexagonal cells, a 20 g structure which can support 1000 g of honey. Wax is used to cap the ripened honey and when mixed with some propolis, also protects the brood from infections and desiccation. Together with propolis, wax is also employed for sealing cracks and covering foreign objects in the hive. The wax collected by the beekeeper is that which is used in comb construction. Frame hive beekeeping produces wax almost exclusively from the cap and top part of the honey cells.

Pure beeswax from Apis mellifera consists of at least 284 different compounds. Not all have been completely identified but over 111 are volatile (Tulloch, 1980). At least 48 compounds were found to contribute to the aroma of beeswax (Ferber and Nursten, 1977). Quantitatively, the major compounds are saturated and unsaturated monoesters, diesters, saturated and unsaturated hydrocarbons, free acids and hydroxy polyesters. Table 4.1 lists the proportion of compounds as presented by Tulloch (1980).

There are 21 major compounds, each making up more than 1 % of the pure unfractionated wax. Together they account for 56% of the wax. The other 44% of diverse minor compounds probably account for beeswax’s characteristic plasticity and low melting point (Tulloch, 1980).

(taken from Krell, R.,“Value-Added Products from Bee-Keeping,” FAO Agricultural Services Bulletin #124, 1996)