Beeswax: Natural light

This story originally appeared in Vermont’s Local Banquet Magazine’s March 2011 issue as part of a larger compilation called “The Best Farm Products You Can’t Eat.”

A man-made beehive sounds and looks like a buzzing filing cabinet: a rectangular box in which 10 evenly spaced, wood-framed screens made of wax or plastic are inserted like hanging folders. Using the screens as a base, a healthy bee colony will construct honeycombs made of thousands of hexagonal chambers for storing honey. When a bee fills a cell with its thick, golden sugar, it creates a thin cap of wax over the chamber that acts as a natural lid to keep in the honey.

To harvest the honey, beekeepers gently lift out each full honeycomb screen and use a warm knife to carefully shave off the wax caps and to expose the honey inside. The combs are then spun to extract the honey, and the caps are pressed to squeeze off any amber drops still clinging to them.

Those little wax caps are what beekeepers use to make beeswax for lip balms, hand salves, and, its most popular application, sweet-scented beeswax candles. Ignited by cotton or plant fiber wicks, beeswax candles burn longer and cleaner than common paraffin candles, which are made from a petroleum derivative.

Pedro Salas, owner of Bee Happy Vermont, is one of many Vermont beekeepers who nurture hives of bees to harvest their thickly sweet nectar and to turn the wax into luminaries. He got started 10 years ago when a local beekeeper was looking for help and Pedro was looking for a job.

“On my first day, we transported the hives from one location to another,” Pedro recalls. “I looked up, and the sky was filled with bees—like a snowstorm. I loved it, being outside working in nature.”

After learning the trade for several years, Pedro now keeps 44 hives in Starksboro, from which he gets most of his wax. Each July, he extracts the honey and wax from his hives, bottles the honey, and then heats and filters the wax three times to remove any debris.

Pedro then forms the wax into blocks and uses it throughout the year to make candles. Color is dictated by what type of pollen the bees have eaten; lighter yellow honey and wax come from sources like alfalfa and blueberry blossoms, while darker tones are produced from hives positioned near buckwheat. Additional filtering will also lighten wax to palettes of pale lemon or ivory.

Pedro, a Peruvian who worked as a mural artist in Guam before moving to the U.S., applied his creativity to candle making by studying how to design his own molds. His collection of more than 20 handmade rubber, plastic, and metal forms now includes slender pyramids, Thanksgiving turkeys, embracing lovers, intricate floral pillars, ears of corn, angels, and graceful tapers.

“Beeswax makes me very happy,” says Pedro, who sells his candles at farmers’ markets and small stores. “I’m like another bee working with the honey. Once I start making candles, I keep working for two, six, up to 10 hours—smelling the honey in the wax, chewing on the comb. I enjoy it.”


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