Modern beekeepers commonly wonder what to do with all the beeswax their hives produce. Thankfully, the possibilities are endless, from holistic and decorative uses to various homemade health and beauty products. Learn how to make beautiful, useful gifts with Petra Ahnert’s book, Beeswax Alchemy (Quarry Books, 2015). This excerpt details the history of beeswax.
You can purchase this book from the Mother Earth Living store: Beeswax Alchemy.
The relationship between bees and humans dates to the hunter-gatherer days when, armed with nothing but a long stick and a lot of resolve, men would knock down hives from trees and run, returning to the scene to harvest the honey when it was deemed safe. Later, humans discovered that using smoke from a burning stick helped to subdue the bees, making the job a bit easier. The usefulness of wax could very well have been discovered then. Although some of this is conjecture on my part, there are cave paintings in Valencia Spain dating back about 8,000 years that show two people collecting honey and honeycomb from a wild bee hive. They used baskets and gourds to transport the honeycomb, and a series of ropes to reach the hive.
We know more about the ancient Egyptians and their relationship with beeswax. They recognized the value of beeswax in mummification and used it for the embalming process. They also used the wax to seal the coffin and make it air tight, further preserving the body. The Egyptians preserved their writings on papyrus and on cave walls using beeswax, and these writings have remained unchanged for more than 2,000 years. They even recognized the importance of beeswax in health, as prescriptions dating back to 1550 B.C. called for beeswax in various formulations. Ancient jewelers and artisans utilized the lost wax casting technique, which involves sculpting an object in beeswax, coating the object with clay, and then hardening the clay with heat. The heat melted the wax, leaving a clay shell that was a perfect replica of the beeswax sculpture. Molten metal was then poured into the clay shell and allowed to harden before the clay was removed.
Egyptian priests also created the first voodoo dolls, using beeswax to create figures resembling their enemies before ritually destroying them. Egyptians also loved perfumes and were reputed to have made perfumed unguents, the precursors to today’s solid perfumes. They incorporated beeswax, tallow and various aromatic substances infused in oil, such as myrrh, henna, cinnamon, thyme, sage, anise, rose and iris. The unguents weren’t sold as perfumes, but rather for a multitude of medical uses.
The Chinese also recognized the importance of beeswax. About 2,000 years ago, one of China’s most famous books on medicine, The Shennong Book of Herbs, praised beeswax for its beneficial influence on blood and energy systems and attributed beeswax with beauty enhancement and anti aging properties. Beeswax was also recognized as an important ingredient in wound treatment and dietary supplement.
Beeswax candles were already used by the ancient Egyptians, ancient Greeks, and in Rome and China. Beeswax candles have been used in European churches since the beginning of Christianity. The Roman Catholic Church only allowed beeswax candles to be used in the church. Although this law is still valid today, candles are no longer required to be 100 percent beeswax. By the eleventh century, however, churches were using huge amounts of candles. They were able to maintain the necessary amount of beeswax in part by having apiaries in every monastery and abbey.
In the days of Marco Polo, beeswax was abundant and was often used to pay tribute to kings. But despite its abundance, beeswax candles were only in the hands of the rich; the poor had to suffer with tallow candles.
Reprinted with permission from Beeswax Alchemy by Petra Ahnert (Quarry Books, 2015). It may not be reproduced for any other use without permission.
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