While honey has always been seen as the prize from keeping bees, the beeswax is just as important. It is the building block of any honeycomb, made from the waxy scales at the base of bees’ abdomens. In a hive, some worker bees produce the wax, while others mould and chew it into shape, and every honey-filled cell in a frame is covered with a wax cap.
Beekeepers have to remove this wax covering before extracting the honey, after which you are left with a rather sticky frame that is still waxy. This goes back into the hive where the bees eat all honey remnants, leaving the frame clean but layered in wax. You then remove the frame again, and steam off and sieve the wax, which quickly solidifies into a block ready to use for beeswax wraps.
Step two: brush the beeswax over the fabric wrap © Jason Ingram
When you keep bees, you quickly build up a store of beeswax. Over ten years of keeping hives behind my house overlooking Chesil Beach, I have experimented with beeswax, using it in salves and polishes and for candle-making. Then two years ago, I came across some beeswax wraps and decided to make my own. It’s a pleasing process that produces something universally useful, environmentally friendly and long-lasting. Beeswax has been used as a preservative for millennia, even forming part of the process of ancient Egyptian mummification, and cloths soaked in beeswax were used in Chinese medicine as far back as the second century. Almost two thousand years on, we’ve realised that the simple process of brushing fabric with wax produces an effective, natural way to keep food fresh without using plastics. The coated fabric is perfect for wrapping bread, cheese, vegetables and fruit, or for covering bowls in the larder or fridge. The only restriction is not to use them over fish or meat, and to keep them out of the freezer or microwave. Beeswax wraps can last for years, washed in cold or lukewarm water, and are ultimately recyclable.
Beekeeping associations can be found all over the country and if you don’t have your own bees they can advise you where to get local beeswax. Otherwise it is available to buy online. You can make beeswax wraps from pure beeswax, but they are more flexible and less likely to crack if you add a little jojoba oil and pine resin to the mix.
How to create a beeswax wrap
Things you’ll need
To create eight beeswax wraps, up to 40x40cm, you’ll need approximately 1m of 100 per cent cotton fabric, cut into squares with pinking shears so it doesn’t fray. The fabric must be flat, so if you are reusing material you must iron it first to get rid of wrinkles or the wax risks pooling and cracking.
You will also need:
- baking parchment
- 120g solid beeswax
- 40g pine-resin powder (optional but desirable)
- one tablespoon jojoba oil (optional but desirable)
- a 2.5cm-width paintbrush
- a metal container to fit into a saucepan
- an oven heated to 100ºC
Watch Michele Vassar get wax from her beehive and make beeswax wraps
Lay a single square of fabric flat on a piece of baking parchment. Mix the beeswax with pine-resin powder and jojoba oil (if you are using them) in a small metal pot and place this over a pan of hot water, stirring all the time. Beeswax melts fast but can be reheated and remelted as many times as you need. The resin and oil make the finished beeswax wraps more flexible and therefore better for moulding and remoulding over storage containers, but pure beeswax wraps perform the same function – they just won’t last as long.
Brush the beeswax mixture swiftly over one side of a piece of fabric, covering as thoroughly as you can. Work fast so you can get the wrap into the oven quickly as wax solidifies swiftly. Don’t use an oven hotter than 100ºC because wax is highly flammable. You can fold the fabric and parchment to fit the size of your oven, then leave the wrap to cook for one minute only before removing it and checking for coverage. Waxed areas will be darker than any unwaxed areas and if necessary brush on more wax to make sure there are no bare spots and return to the oven for a further minute.
After the minute’s cooking, remove the beeswax wrap from the parchment and place it straight on a rack. Take care as a wrap is hot when it comes out of the oven. Follow exactly the same process for further wraps. The wraps can be used as soon as they are cool. They should last for years with reasonable care – wash them in cool or lukewarm water – but if they start to crack or bobble you can simply reheat them.
You can find out more about Michele’s beeswax wraps on Facebook @beeswholivebythesea, and find details of local beekeepers at bka.org.uk. You can also source pure beeswax from thehivehoneyshop.co.uk