Monday, March 10, 2014

Rendering Beeswax

 In our neck of the woods, spring is definitely in the air.  Chives and new growth on the strawberries poking through the mulch, grass in protected areas starting to green up, birds returning from the south side of things... That means it's time to start getting set up for the spring flurry of activity around the homestead!  On our list this weekend was the bees.  While we don't know exactly where we're going to site them in our new place, we know what we've got to do to get the hives ready.  This year, it's mainly scraping out old boxes and wiring in foundation.

The catch is that we had a place to keep bees three years ago, then not for the last two years, and now again yes!  So all our equipment has been sitting idle for two years.  When we cracked it open, we found some of our old brood comb had some damage from something that's been eating the honey (not sure what, but there were little grubs that looked like small hive beetle larvae in there), and some frames had the telltale scent of fermented honey (but not good mead, just to be clear).  There were also some frames that hadn't had comb drawn out, but that had the foundation busted up.  What to do?  Looks like it's time to take the unusable comb/foundation and render it down into beeswax!

The rendering process for beeswax is pretty similar to the process we use for other fats, like tallow and meat trimmings.  Except this time, we're not going to make cracklins out of the leftovers.  (Although maybe the leftover pupae wouldn't taste too bad...)  It's also pretty similar to the process that Don uses in his YouTube videos (which we found out after the fact!), but we don't have the luxury of dedicated equipment that doesn't have to be thoroughly cleaned.  (So we'll share a couple tips we figured out in that regard, too.)

Note: this is a cautionary tale and contains more information on what not to do than the best way to do this.  But, in case your intuition and forward-thinking skills are in a lull when you have some beeswax to render (like ours evidently were), let this be a lesson...

Here's the victim: nine frames of unusable wax and/or foundation.  Some of the combs are pretty dark.

We broke everything up so it would fit in a pot (with about six inches of water in the bottom) and started heating.  The darkest comb isn't shown in this picture.

The frames and wires got set next to the door so they could be quickly taken back outside before Katie found out what had inexplicably happened to the kitchen.  In retrospect, the comb-removal operation should have been done outside.  EDIT: Katie says the entire operation should have been done outside.  New house rule!

While it's cooking, we brought some of our misshapen foundation inside to flatten out in the warm kitchen.  We were pretty glad we saved the wax paper between the sheets!  We put a stoneware cookie sheet on top to weigh it down.  They're not perfectly flat yet, but we're not in that big of a hurry.

When all the meltable stuff is melted, there are four (or five) layers.  At the very bottom is a thin layer of dirt and other heavy stuff.  Then comes the water and all the water-soluble stuff.  At the interface of the water and beeswax is stuff like propolis and lightweight dirt.  On top of that is the beeswax, and at the very top is a bunch of dark-colored floaties.  The floaties are things like pollen chunks, dead bees and pupae, and other stuff from the bees' junk drawer.

When it looked like nothing else was melting, we scooped off the floaties and stacked them as tall as possible in a glass bowl.  A lot of wax ended up coming with them.  If we had another big vessel to add them to like Don did, we could have filtered through a t-shirt or something.  But we thought a kitchen strainer would be very hard to clean.

As it was, we poured what wax we could back into another bowl, but still weren't happy with how much we were losing. So, we filtered through a t-shirt anyway, dripping the liquid into the new bowl.  We figured out that if we put the floaties in the middle, and twisted on either side that we could squeeze out more wax without burning our hands.  (Coincidentally, this is also the point where the term 'diminishing returns' starts to be an adequate description of getting more wax out of the floaties.)  The t-shirt might not ever be wearable again, but it will make some good candle wicks!

In retrospect, pouring back into the pot would have been a better idea.  (Katie rolls her eyes.)  But we got two thin cakes of wax instead of one thick one, and two is better than one, right?  Next time we'll find a bigger second vessel and strain through an old t-shirt.  All the hot water coming through the t-shirt will send most of the wax through anyway, and we'll avoid this messy step!  We set the pot outside to cool down overnight.  Then we added some water to this bowl, heated in the microwave until everything was melted, and set it outside to cool down overnight.

After the first melt, both cakes of wax were kind of dirty, like this.  So we put them back in the bowl with some water, and heated them in the microwave until everything was melted.

We repeated the process of adding water, melting, and cooling until the wax was clean enough for our standards. (It took three times for this batch.)

We weren't quite sure what we want to do with the beeswax yet (so many possibilities!), so we decided to store it in some canning jars until we have a better idea.  Looks a lot better than the dark brown mess we started with!

Now for the cleanup...we didn't take a picture during the process, but what we found works fairly well is almost-boiling water and dish soap.  Beeswax melts at 140-150 °F, so boiling water definitely melts the wax, and the soap helps solubilize it in the water.  For utensils like the slotted spoon, just pouring very hot water over it was enough to melt the wax and wash away any residue.  For the pot and glass bowls, we scrubbed them down with a dish cloth wrapped around a spoon.  Insulated rubber gloves or the hand part from Iron Man's suit would also work, but we didn't have either handy.

There was a thin residue that didn't show up until dry, but it's not likely to hurt anything and will wear off over the next few uses. (Or when Katie decides to scrub it the next day...)  Who couldn't use a glass bowl with some extra waterproofing? For the stove and counter top (and floor and walls and inside of the microwave...), we were able to scrape off the wax with a hard piece of plastic, and wipe up any residue with the hot wet dish cloth.  No residue when dry.  Yay!

What's your process for rendering beeswax?  What do you do with it once you have it purified?  Let us know in the comments section below!


  1. Growing up we had a solar wax melter and it worked pretty well. My dad had quite a few hives, so we were always melting down old frames. I don't remember getting our wax quite as clean as yours, there were always bees getting stuck in the wax melter (and the wax).

    1. Thanks for the link! A solar wax melter is on our list of things to build. Seems like it work well at least for a first pass, then we could clean it up with some finer rendering if we wanted to use it in food or chapstick or something.

  2. oh thinks you need to build an outdoor kitchen for some of your experiments! i would suggest using the beeswax for candles!

    1. I think Katie moved the 'outdoor kitchen' project up the priority list after this experiment. :-)

  3. Stretch pantyhose over a hoop, stuff with comb, double hose back over. Place in solid container portion of old veggie steamer (raised up off the bottom as high as possible, 1 inch should do though; you need to get the lid on). Place solid container in strainer basket container and assemble on top of the streamer. This is the setup for using the steamer to make rice. Steam for an hour or two, topping up water in the base as necessary. Wax will strain through the sock and drip into the solid container. Discard the sock. There will be wax in the sock but....diminishing returns, remember?

    1. Thanks, Keith! That sounds easier than what we did. I suppose if you did it with a cotton cloth instead of pantyhose, it might drain slower, but you could cut the cloth into something else useful, like candle wicks or something.