Inside: What about beeswax candles make them a treasured part of so many holidays and get-togethers? A comparison of wax types shows why we all love beeswax candles.
Exploring the history and mystery of beeswax candles
Candles illuminate the sentimental moments of our lives. We light them to mark events that bring sublime happiness and those that commemorate sorrow or regret. Think back to the last time you experienced the warm glow of a shimmering flame. Did the scent of burning wax trigger a long-suppressed memory?
This article first appeared in American Bee Journal, Volume 163 No. 2, February 2023, pp. 191-195.
Candles mark birthdays, anniversaries, and holidays. They grace religious celebrations throughout the world, commemorate lost loves, and mark anniversaries of the delightful and horrific that humankind has endured. Candles are equally present at vigils for the deceased and announcements of the newly born.
When I think of candles, I remember romantic dinners, spooky jack-o’-lanterns, and cakes so loaded with candles I couldn’t see the icing. From my college days, I remember thousands of flamelets floating on a darkened lake as the sun tucked beneath the pines. And I recall thrilling hours studying by candlelight as hurricane winds pounded the dorm.
Not all light is equal
In today’s slightly blue LED world, the golden glow of candlelight is more alluring than ever. People seem to crave the saffron incandescence that only a raw flame can provide, the wavelengths humans evolved with. Despite all the advertising hype, something about LED light simply feels “off.” Our feral selves prefer real firelight over the artificial glow of a fancy diode.
Luckily, beekeepers can provide the very best flames available, safe to breathe and lovely to behold. In fact, it’s a perfect time for any beekeeper to add beeswax candles to a table of honey and hand cream. Even if you don’t sell your beeswax candles, they are worth the effort for you, your friends, and your family.
Beeswax as fuel
We brought honey bees to North America primarily as a source of fuel. Although honey was nice to have, fuel for candles was essential. Of course, the New World was rich in sources of candlepower, but the first colonists didn’t know what it might be, nor how to collect it. In retrospect, honey bees were a brilliant choice, a self-replicating source of the finest wax.
Throughout history, substances that could provide humans with fuel have been at the center of civilization. Today we worry about the excess burning of fuel, but for most of human history, we burned anything that would ignite. Like any fuel, candles provide light and heat, while they shed carbon dioxide, water vapor, other gasses, and miscellaneous particulates.
Candles and the church
Beeswax candles have long been associated with religious rituals. From early Egyptian times to the present, beeswax candles have been a vital part of far-flung sacred traditions. Some say beeswax flames were brighter than any alternative wax, while others argue that because beeswax produced less smoke, it was less likely to foul priceless paintings and windows. It also kept a large congregation breathing easily in an enclosed space.
Some scholars believe that the use of beeswax goes deeper than its physical properties. For example, the ancient Egyptians believed Ra, the god of the sun, wept tears that transformed into sacred bees that produced honey and wax. To honor the honey bee in medieval times, the only candles allowed inside the walls of many houses of worship were those made of beeswax.
Even today, honey bee lore persists throughout dozens of religious sects. One popular explanation for the sacredness of beeswax lies in its origin. Because beeswax is secreted only by worker bees who are themselves virgins, the beeswax itself is virginal and, thus, pure.
Illuminating colonial America
Homemakers in colonial America who needed light for the tedious hours of winter darkness had limited options. The most common choices were candles made from tallow, spermaceti, bayberries, and beeswax.
Tallow from the family farm
During colonial times, tallow was the cheapest and most common candle material in North America and Europe. Made from the rendered fat of family cows, pigs, and sheep, tallow was readily available to many.
To make candles, homemakers dipped wicks made of rushes or twisted flax into cauldrons of melted tallow. Once dipped, they hung the skinny wicks to dry. After they hardened, the wicks were dipped again, an iterative process that gradually fattened the candle into a taper.
The pleasantness of a tallow candle depends on how the fat was rendered. If bits and pieces of meat remained in the tallow, the resulting candles could smell like a long-dead raccoon. Poor families without supplies for repeated sieving could easily face a profoundly reeky winter. The low melting point of tallow (about 99 F) accounts for other complaints, too. Tallow candles smoke easily, drip excessively, and require constant wick trimming to keep them lit.
Spermaceti from whales
First harvested in the 17th century, spermaceti is a wax-like material formed in the head of the sperm whale. The wax must be extracted from the oil by crystallization and treatment with an alkaline solution, an onerous undertaking.
Although it was more expensive and less available than tallow, users treasured it as a superior candle wax because it lacked smell and burned clean. Oddly, the unit of candlepower first defined in the United Kingdom was based on the light produced by a single spermaceti candle of a specific size.
Bayberry: the scent of holidays
Bayberry candles were another staple of colonial households, especially in coastal areas where the berries thrived. The bayberry (Myrica pensylvanica), also known as wax myrtle or candleberry, is a deciduous shrub that grows to 10 feet in height. It produces masses of gray berries the size of peppercorns that are covered with nubbly wax. The wax must be melted from the berries and separated in a tedious process, but the resulting wax is a greenish delight.
Where I grew up in the East, homemakers reserved bayberry candles for special occasions such as Thanksgiving and Christmas. They were extremely expensive — more expensive than beeswax — but they burned clean and smelled like the holidays, festive and warm.
The price of bayberry candles continues to increase as the bayberry’s natural habitat disappears. In some places, bayberry is locally extinct or considered endangered. As a result, many of today’s “bayberry candles” are merely bayberry-scented or contain only a small percentage of authentic bayberry wax. As usual, the buyer must beware.
Beeswax: warm and golden
Today, as in colonial times, we hold beeswax candles in high regard. Among the most expensive candles, we revere them for their scent, high melting point, low smokiness, and rich, golden color.
Like many other families, we always saved our beeswax candles for the holidays, so the scent of warm honey and wax would permeate the house. For me, a beeswax candle is redolent of family get-togethers, heavenly food, and festive music as far back as I can remember. With just a quick sniff, I can feel the snow pelting my cheeks and taste the steaming hot chocolate served before a roaring fire.
The invention of paraffin for candle-making
In modern times, we make most candles of paraffin, a substance refined from crude oil. At the time of its invention in 1830, manufacturers touted paraffin as much cleaner and less pungent than tallow, and cheaper than most other candle waxes.
Depending on its source and processing details, paraffin for candles melts at somewhere around 115–154 F and flashes at 392–464 F. Consumers, especially those accustomed to tallow candles, liked the lower price and the cleaner, more reliable flame. Paraffin was a modern wonder, welcomed by all.
Today, however, many consumers bridle at burning paraffin in an enclosed space. Paraffin flames produce benzene and toluene, both suspected carcinogens, and scented candles may also produce formaldehyde. In addition, paraffin can be smokey, darkening ceilings and walls with a dingy gray cast. It is not surprising that many people are ready to return to beeswax for their cherished family celebrations.
The physical properties of beeswax
As beekeepers know, beeswax is enchanting stuff. To begin with, it smells heavenly and has a natural golden color reminiscent of ripening wheat. Beeswax candles are famous for long burn times, a steady flame, and few drips.
The composition of beeswax is variable, depending on its geographic origin. Likewise, the melting point fluctuates within in range of about 144–147 F, although the flash point is around 400 F. Taken together, these properties make it just about perfect for candles.
The beeswax for candles usually comes from cappings. Although relatively clean compared to things like brood wax, it still contains bits of propolis, honey, and pollen. These impurities can cause your candles to snap, crackle, and pop like breakfast cereal, so the wax requires filtering. But the sublime odor of beeswax also results from these contaminants, so the perfect candle wax is a delicate compromise between a tame flame and a seductive smell.
The downside of beeswax candles
The expense of beeswax is a major objection, but certainly not the only one. Although it’s hard to believe, some people find beeswax candles lacking in certain qualities. For those who revel in added fragrance, beeswax does not hold or distribute added scents as well as paraffin. Instead, the scent of beeswax competes with added scents or completely overwhelms them.
A related problem surrounds the color. Those who want to dye candles specific colors find the competition with the golden yellow of beeswax to be objectionable. Like the scent, the color is at least partially a result of impurities. Beeswax can be bleached and super-filtered to remove most of these if that’s what you really want, but it’s probably easier and more economical to use a different wax altogether.
Modern waxes for vegan families
The leaves of the carnauba palm (Copernicia prunifera), a native of northeastern Brazil, give us carnauba wax. Since the wax contains no animal products, carnauba candles are popular with vegans.
The problem with carnauba wax is its extremely high melting point, about 180 F. The high heat required to keep a carnauba candle lit often results in an unsteady flame with excessive flickering. As a result, the wax is often mixed with either beeswax or coconut oil to make it softer.
The other popular vegan choice is soy. Soy wax is made by cleaning soybeans and then rolling them into flakes. The flakes are then pressed to extract the oil that must subsequently be hydrogenated. This process saturates some of the fatty acids, making the wax solid at room temperature so we can use it in candles.
The melting point of soy wax is variable, usually about 120-180 F, depending on the additives. On the lower end, soy candles must be made in a container, but with additives, soy can be shaped into pillars. To simplify the process, soy is often mixed with beeswax, paraffin, or palm wax. Blended candles are popular because they distribute scent better than soy alone.
Tips for high-quality beeswax candles
I will not presume to teach candle-making because I’m not the right person for the job. You can find excellent blog posts out there that explain exactly how to do it. However, I have some personal observations.
Noisy and noisome candles
Beginners making beeswax candles often have trouble with fizzles and pops. If your candle sputters and smells like refried bees, it’s time to rethink how you clean your wax.
Beeswax needs to be filtered carefully to remove most of the bee appendages, hive debris, and pollen grains. Filtering is a time-consuming and messy process that is easy to cut short simply because it’s not much fun. But if you take shortcuts (as I and many others know from experience) you are highly likely to end up with firecrackers at your dinner party.
Not only do these candles sound scary and smell bad, but they can set your tablecloth on fire. Bee or plant parts hidden in the wax may contain moisture that expands when heated to form little bombs. Or if they don’t explode, they may just burn and form dense tendrils of smoke that curl upward and coat your (previously) white ceiling.
I’m always leery of wasting anything, so when I began making beeswax candles I figured I would filter once, not twice. Although my long amber tapers looked lovely, they were terrifying at mealtime, hissing, snapping, and sizzling between stenchy flare-ups. Everyone at the table focused on the incendiary devices at center stage, rather than on my (truly) delicious meal.
The term gutter can refer to a channel on the edge of a candle where the melted pool of wax can escape and run down the side of the candle. It can also refer to a candle that has excess melted wax in the center, allowing the flame to “drown” and extinguish. Neither is good.
To prevent guttering, the size of the wick must match the diameter of the candle and be appropriate for the type of wax. For example, a larger diameter candle needs a thicker wick, and wax with a higher melting point needs a thicker wick to assure the candle keeps burning. Before you buy wicks, you can consult charts and tables that provide guidelines.
These resources often discuss the “melt pool,” a term that refers to the amount of liquid wax on top of a burning candle. Ideally, this pool should extend from one side of the candle to the other, edge to edge, and be at least a quarter-inch deep. Waxes like beeswax and carnauba that have a high melting point need more heat to keep the pool liquid, so the wider wick is helpful.
A related problem is “tunneling” where a wick burns a hole down through the center of a candle without ever making an edge-to-edge pool. This comes from a wick that is too small for the type of wax.
Use dedicated equipment
Beekeeping suppliers like Dadant have all the candle-making supplies you need to make perfect beeswax candles. Make sure you also have dedicated wax-working tools like double boilers, strainers, spatulas, and spoons. Don’t use your regular kitchen utensils or you will be in deep trouble with the chef. Wax-working is nothing if not messy.
Marketing your homemade candles
If you sell honey to local retailers or directly from a roadside table, consider offering a few beeswax candles, too. They are easy to sell, especially in the fall before the holiday season. And alongside your honey-filled jars and straws, they make an attractive display.
Stress their health properties
Because beeswax candles are more expensive than paraffin candles, be sure to let your customers know that beeswax burns clean, burns slowly, and smells delicious. Many potential buyers will not know how beeswax candles differ from others, so it’s up to you to explain.
You can also emphasize that beeswax does not emit the many toxic chemicals that paraffin does, so you and your family can breathe easily.
Include explanations with the products
Whenever I sell comb honey, I include a business card printed with an explanation of comb honey and serving suggestions. It would be easy to design a card to include with your candles, explaining how bees make the wax and how you make the candles. People love to know the origin of specialty items and they often pass the cards along with the gifts. Explanatory posters or cards may seem like a lot of work, but they will be worth your time in increased sales.
And speaking of gifts, you can sell even more candles if you include some vegan alternatives. Soy candles make a great addition to your offerings. When people are purchasing gifts, they will often buy for multiple people, and some of those people may be vegans.
Soy candles are easy for you to make. Besides your regular candle-making supplies, all you need is soy wax flakes and fragrance oil. The card you include with the purchase can explain that honey bees don’t make soy wax and are not needed for self-pollinating soybeans.
Although no animal labor is exploited in the making of soy candles, honey bees and a variety of native bees enjoy the sweet nectar that soybean flowers produce in abundance. That means your vegan customers can buy soy candles and support bees at the same time.
Begin your wax collection now
Give beeswax candles a try this coming season. Set aside a five-gallon bucket and each time you come across a stray piece of beeswax, toss it in the bucket.
When I first began “bucketing” my beeswax, I thought I would never have enough. But now I have so much, I had to stack the buckets atop each other in my shed. Turning all that wax into golden, fragrant beeswax candles is a to-do on my (incredibly long) bucket list; I just need to get started.
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