As I’ve been traveling through this journey to turn back the proverbial clock on this modern world, I can’t help but notice time and time again the human connection to honeybees. For thousands of years humans have had a special relationship with bees and have developed a very sophisticated (and mostly industrialized) symbiotic relationship with the little buzzers. We provide them with housing, and then we reap the benefits of honey and wax, not to mention the perks they bring to gardening and pollination.
Our heroine Claire knew that very well, and I think a lot more of us 21st century dwellers who love the idea of dirt under our nails are beginning to see that a little home scale beehive might just kick butt. My hubs and I are planning to host bees next spring, and in the meantime, we’re trying to learn all that we can about keeping a colony.
In the meantime, a kind friend who knew of my blog asked if I’d like a lump of honeycomb scrapings that someone gave him. Umm…… Yes, please! Who WOULDN’T want a big bag filled with a sticky hard lump of honeyed wax with actual mushed up dead bees in it?!?! (It’s times like this when I realize that my excitement for these kinds of projects is what makes me – let’s call it – “special.”)
In any case, I couldn’t wait to dig into this. From what little I know of beekeeping and processing/filtering honey and wax, the process seemed to me to be VERY commercial, industrial, I don’t know – metallic? While I can understand that for the typical commercial apiarist, who keeps hundreds of boxes for millions of bees, the process of honey/wax extraction NEEDS to be fast. But I like to slow things down, and I really wanted to come up with a method to clean and filter wax that 1.) might be used on the frontier 2.) I could reproduce simply at home.
Another quick note – I tend to skip research. A lot. I like to get a little hint of how things are done, and then just try to figure it out. (My own version of time-traveling trial and error, perhaps?) I’m sure there are many (MANY) other ways to filter beeswax (steamers, crockpots, campfires, window screens, etc.…seriously, check out YouTube. Yeesh!) but this method is the one I went with. I was VERY happy with how relatively easy it was, and more importantly, the quality of the wax is fantastic.
So, it went like this. I started with my lump of bee goo. I broke it up into smaller bits. And then…..
Wait for it…..
I put it in a bucket of water to soak.
After I saw this suggestion, I had another smack to the forehead (duh!) moment of clarity.
THE WATER DISSOLVES THE HONEY.
THE WAX FLOATS ON TOP.
Phase 1: I placed my lump of sticky wax into a bucket and added water, and then waited for a day. I stored my covered bucket (of something which looked remarkably vomitus) in my garage for a day or so.
Using a system of strainers, I filtered off the wax. For this, I used a two bucket system of straining the wax, meaning that I set up my colander/strainer, and poured the solution from one bucket to another. I used two buckets because I didn’t want to make any inadvertent spilling errors and dump my wax down my driveway.
After each pour, I took the strained wax out of the colanders, and repeated the bucket-to-bucket straining of the water another four of five times. Once I noticed that an insignificant amount of wax remained in the liquid, I dumped out the old water. I added the filtered wax and new clean water back into a (freshly cleaned) bucket and let the mix sit. I completed the soaking/straining process over the course of five days, and I’m not even sure I needed to wait that long, but heck… life happens, ya’ ken? While I was doing the straining, I took the time to break apart the stickier lumps and pluck out whatever debris (dead bees) that I could. And then back into a water bath it went.
My goal in this soaking and rinsing process was to break down the dissolvable bits of the mix. I wanted any leftover honey to dissolve, as well as any bits of dirt, bee parts, etc. Basically anything that wasn’t wax needed to go.
The photo below shows the variety of cleanliness I was getting after soaking. Anything from larger sticky lumps on the left, to essentially spotless pieces of wax on the right.
During the process of straining and breaking apart larger pieces, I noticed that a few of these lumps weren’t dissolving. These chunks seemed to have been made of something other than wax and honey, and I honestly didn’t know what they were made of. Perhaps a combination of stored pollen, dirt, perhaps baby bees? Dunno. (I’m sure the bee experts out there could provide more info.) So I decided that whatever the blobs were, they most likely didn’t have a lot of wax in them, so after a few days of soaking in the water bath, if they were still lumpy, I took them out. Again, the intended end product was clean beeswax, after all.
After all of the sitting, draining, and sifting of bee legs, I noticed that the water was almost clear, and had almost no smell or taste of honey to it. (And YES, I tried it. I’m brave like that.) I decided this was as clean as it was going to get, so time to start the next phase of filtering wax.
Phase 2: The melting begins. By now, I’ve assembled quite the collection of pots, pans, jars, containers to use for my little experiments, and I pulled them out now for melting the wax. I reused a glass canning jar from making lotion, filled it with the cleaned wax, and set it into a pot of simmering water. I used a bamboo kabob skewer to stir – which I planned to dispose of rather than try to clean. After all, this is WAX we’re working with here. The beeswax pieces had the size and consistency of oatmeal flakes after all of the soaking but, I say again – it’s WAX. It has this way of sorta sticking to pretty much everything it comes in contact with, so if you’re into a pristine kitchen, better prep the crap out of your stove and countertops or take this one outside.
I added more wax to the jar as it room allowed while it was melting. And as the wax melted, I noticed that there was a layer of wax on top, and another layer below. Having no idea what this could be, I just kept stirring.
After about twenty minutes in the water bath, all of my wax had melted and I was ready for the next step.
Phase 3: The Final Filter
I borrowed again from research that I’d found elsewhere online and decided to set up a little filtering system. I used an old nylon stocking, which I set up over a plastic storage container. Actually, I squeezed the container IN the stocking, and it worked quite well. Again, while anticipating for a molten wax overload, I prepped a little work space, and slowly began pouring the melted wax over the nylon screen. And I found one word to describe it… Eew. There was STUFF in it. What the heck IS that?! But my secondary reaction was, WOHOO! It’s working. Ohmygosh, it’s WORKING! Nice clear wax was going into the container, and the sludgy gross stuff stayed out.
Note: I actually did a bit of research on what the sludgy stuff was, and guess what? It’s got a name. Slumgum – a highly technical term for the debris pulled out of melted beeswax. Now you know too. And if you want to know even more about all things bees, you may read more here:
As the wax cooled and hardened, I noticed that they layering thing that happened in the double boiler was happening again in the plastic container. But I was patient and didn’t poke my finger in anything or squish it around (believe it or not, Mom.), I just waited until it was cool. It was when I went to pop the wax out of the container that I noticed that the bottom layer seemed very watery– my fear was that it was going to be a slightly thicker honey/wax layer, but nope! It was mostly WATER.
While this layer was darker in color, it was not sweet, meaning no honey. (And yes, I tried it. Again.) I’m just going to assume that the color of this liquid was a result from the bits of dirt or slumgum that made it through the nylon filter. (Gross. I can’t believe I tried that.) In the end, I was able to pop the top layer of wax out of the container, and just tossed the bottom watery layer.
So, if you’re tallying the amount of effort this process required, here’s a quick summary.
Phase 1: The unfiltered glob of beeswax mess sat for about five days. I spent about 15 min each time I filtered and picked out debris (bee corpses).
Phase 2: Maybe half an hour of melting in a double boiler.
Phase 3: Final nylon filtration – maybe 2 minutes of pouring and straining. Add an extra half hour or so for cleanup. Then wait for an hour or so for everything to harden.
To improve the effectiveness of the process for the next time I do this, I decided that I need to find a way to dry out the wax before I place it in the double boiler, which would most likely eliminate quite a bit of the watery layer. Maybe squeeze it dry in an old piece of cloth first.
All in all, this was a fun project, and I got my very own beeswax out of it!! In my novice opinion, this filtering process was fairly simple and the end result is going to be used for something fun!
(Bear fat lip gloss anyone?)