Beeswax candles, lip balm, and food wraps are seemingly de rigueur in any eco-home, but is beeswax eco-friendly? If you’re wrestling with this question, or if you’re toying with veganism and want to know about the ethics of beeswax, this article is for you.
First, what is beeswax?
In short, beeswax is made by female worker honeybees using special glands in their abdomens. These bees convert sugar from honey into a waxy substance, deposit this as flakes that other bees collect and chew. The resulting wax is then used to create the honeycomb in which honey is stored by the bees. Bees also store pollen and raise their offspring in this honeycomb.
When you see beeswax for sale as an ingredient, this is usually created by taking the honeycomb from hives, draining the honey, washing and melting the comb in a double boiler, straining it through cheesecloth to remove debris, and then pouring it into a block mould.
Beeswax is technically edible, but it is, well, waxy. It has a honey aroma and is brittle and smooth.
Is beeswax eco-friendly?
A harvest resulting in about 100 pounds of honey will only yield a couple of pounds of beeswax, making this much more costly, to both us and to bees. Beeswax is, however, a natural and renewable product, but only if produced in a sustainable way.
As with honey, taking too much honeycomb from any one hive to make beeswax can compromise the health of the hive overall. Some hives produce excess honeycomb and honey some years, but this is not the case for all hives every year. One beekeeper I know didn’t harvest honey from her hives for five years because the bees were having such a tough time and needed the honey themselves.
Buying local, from small bee farms, makes it more likely the bees producing the beeswax are being treated somewhat fairly, with consideration for the health of the hive itself. At large commercial farms, the queen bee’s wings are often cut off to prevent her from leaving the colony. The queen bee is also artificially inseminated and may be moved around to new colonies with bodyguard bees in tow (who are then killed by the bees already in the colony).
Commercial bee farms also often replace most of the honey from hives with sugar substitutes, which lacks nutrition and can seriously compromise the immune defences of bees. Along with a stressful schedule of being moved from farm to farm across seasons to pollinate crops, this nutrient theft can lead to colony collapse.
The best way to purchase beeswax is to check with local beekeepers. If nobody is selling beeswax from their own hives, you can check online or at a local health food store to see if any sustainable beeswax is available. Sky Organics offer a good option for organic, sustainably sourced, pesticide-free beeswax.
Bear in mind that while fresh honeycomb is almost white, it turns light yellow and then darkens to brown as the bees clean and reuse it over and over again. This means that if you spot any white beeswax for sale it isn’t simply ‘fresh’, it has very likely been bleached and should be avoided.
All in all, it’s extremely difficult to say whether beeswax is eco-friendly. The short answer is ‘maybe, but it depends.’ Finding a local and sustainable source of beeswax, through an apiarist who shows genuine care for their hives, is a good way to tick that eco-friendly box for beeswax. Otherwise, chances are that any beeswax is created in a similar way to commercially produced honey, i.e., unsustainably in a manner that can harm bees and, therefore, the wider environment.
Of course, if you look at the bigger picture, the argument can be made that beeswax offers an excellent natural alternative to some highly problematic products that are definitely not good for the environment. For instance, beeswax can be used instead of synthetic, mineral oil waxes, candles, and wood polish and can be used to make things such as beeswax food wraps in place of single-use plastic wrap.
Beeswax food wraps
Beeswax food wraps are a great option for ditching the single-use plastic wrap or plastic food storage bags. With proper care, beeswax wraps can be used time and again for many years to keep food stored safely. These wraps are also breathable and natural, with some in-built antibacterial defences thanks to the bees. This can help food to stay fresher for longer, which may reduce food waste, and that’s definitely eco-friendly. That said, because it’s harder to get a good seal with beeswax wraps, some food might spoil faster than if stored with plastic wrap, which might actually increase food waste.
Unlike plastic food packaging, beeswax wraps don’t leach chemicals into the environment that could harm wildlife. They are also free from things like phthalates and parabens, which are definitely things to avoid in products in contact with food.
And, once your beeswax wraps are beyond their best years, they will typically biodegrade quickly. This is because most beeswax wraps are made with cotton and beeswax. Ideally, you’d look for beeswax wraps made with organic or upcycled cotton to help offset these problems. Or, you could make beeswax wraps at home with fabric scraps and locally sourced beeswax to be even more eco-friendly.
Alternatives to beeswax
Given the potential issues with beeswax, it’s good to know that there are alternative available. Here are five of the best.
- Rice bran wax – typically discarded as a byproduct of rice bran oil production, this hard wax is inexpensive and sustainable.
- Candelilla wax – made from a shrub native to the southwest US, this wax is harder than beeswax but goes a lot further, meaning you get more bang for your buck.
- Carnauba wax – made from Brazilian palm trees and harder than beeswax, so you need about half as much if replacing beeswax in a recipe. Make sure it’s certified organic though as this increases the chances it is sustainably harvested. Or, choose a palm wax that is RSPO certified – this certification isn’t ideal, but goes some way in supporting the responsible sourcing of the wax.
- Soy wax – not all soy wax is made equal, unfortunately. So, before switching your beeswax for soy, check that it is non-GMO, organic, and is actually soy as many waxes contain a mix of palm, paraffin, beeswax, and soy. Soy wax isn’t an ideal replacement for beeswax but it has the same hardness, making it a cheaper one-to-one switch in recipes.
- Bayberry wax – another plant-based wax, this is produced by boiling myrica (myrtle) bush fruits and then skimming the tallow from the surface of the water. It is much harder and more brittle than beeswax, so you’ll need less than half of what a recipe calls for, which is good because it’s expensive and harder to find. This kind of wax is also more fragrant, so may not be suitable for use in some projects. You can, however, mix it with beeswax to reduce the scent and extend the beeswax.
I wish I could offer a definite answer to whether or not beeswax is eco-friendly. The reality, though, is that it’s all about the provenance of the product. As with so many things that seem to be obviously eco-friendly (hello, bamboo!), the way they are harvested, processed, and used can be anything but.
On balance, though, if you can find a reputable source for beeswax that is organic, small-batch produced, ideally local, and that isn’t bleached or treated with other chemicals, this is going to be far more eco-friendly than many beeswax alternatives.