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Third Place: Samuel J. Devick, North Dakota

Hidden Combs: Beeswax and the Sweet Secret behind North Dakota’s Pride

At the National Agri-Science Conference in Washington D.C. fellow 4-H’ers told
me about their states. From Grandpa’s cattle ranch in Texas, city gardens in urban New
Jersey, and citrus-fruit producing Florida – every state seemed to have something
unique and amazing to offer. But what about me?
I’m from North Dakota. I could say, “Yes, we can survive -30 degree winters!”,
and, “Our state beverage is milk!” – but that didn’t seem quite as interesting.
Later, as I dug in and researched, I found that my state had what you could call a
‘sweet secret’. According to the World Population Review, North Dakota is the number
one honey producer in the nation. Everyone I’ve met, and shared this fact with, agreed
honey is essential. But I further came to realize that our prized honey title wouldn’t be
possible without a really special something called beeswax.
Beeswax works behind the scenes. It secures honey bee food resources, and
protects their young. It also molds our lives in unexpected ways. To ‘wax’ a bit poetic, a
sudden loss of beeswax would make teenage girls suffer from painfully chapped lips,
deprive thousands of mustaches of their glossy sheen and plunge churches throughout
the world into darkness.
We need to stop “minding our own beeswax” because if we don’t mind bees and
their wax, the United States as well as nations around the world will lose out on honey
and an equally precious resource.
So, what is beeswax? To put it simply, it’s processed flower juice coming out from
a bee’s abdomen as thickened flakes. If you’re anything like me, that didn’t clear it all up
– so let’s look more in depth. According to Richard A. Jones and Sharon
Sweeney-Lynch, writing in The Beekeeper’s Bible, beeswax is made from honey, which
is nectar minus some of its water content. It takes about a pound of honey to produce
an ounce of beeswax.
Chemically, it contains esters, cerotic acid, hydrocarbons, and a few other
materials. It melts around 143-47℉ and becomes malleable at 90-95℉.
Wax proceeds from eight pairs of glands located underneath a worker bee’s
abdomen. The wax will eventually form a scale less than an inch long, and after
scraping a scale off and maneuvering it to the front of her body, she’ll chew the wax with
a bit of her saliva until it’s just right to build with.
In a new hive, the workers will make a blob of beeswax and begin to carve it into
the iconic hexagon shape, able to store honey up to forty times its weight (Jones and
Sweeney-Lynch,123-126, 285).
The empty hive, once constructed, becomes, in my words, a “safe” for three
precious resources: Honey, pollen, and the next generation of bees.
Making honey is a group effort, and in the hive many mouths make light work. A
bee will return after searching for food and bring nectar to another bee inside the hive.
This bee’s job is to evaporate the water content of the nectar by constantly swallowing
and regurgitating the nectar. (Jones and Sweeny-Lynch, 123-124).
This honey is safely sealed with a wax cap, and will keep the bees alive over the
winter, as well as helping humans with a variety of needs including wound dressing and
medicine (Knilans and Freeman, 143).
Also stored inside the safe is pollen, valued by bees for their protein content and
probiotic value. The pollen is fermented inside the hive and consumed by bees of all
ages (Knilans and Freeman, 143-144).
We all know that ‘children are our future’ and this isn’t any different for bees. Wax
is the ‘cradle’ for young bees, providing the home for growing workers, drones, and
even queens, shaped specifically within the hive depending on the occupant
(PerfectBee, “The Secrets of Honeycomb – PerfectBee”).
Finally, beeswax is literally the foundation for communication in the hive. Actions
speak louder than words within bee culture, and beeswax helps broadcast dance
moves.
According to Vivian Head, writing in The Beekeeping Handbook worker bees tell
their hive mates how much food is available and where it is by waggling their bodies
from side to side and moving in figure eights. This is called the waggle dance, and
through dancing up or down the honeycomb, workers can communicate the direction of
the food in relation to the sun.
As you know, beeswax is useful not only for our insect friends but for humans
and is eventually extracted through a few techniques: melting by the sun’s power,
steaming, or boiling.
If you want the ‘blue-ribbon’ of waxes, plan on harvesting the caps, which, like all
valuable wax, is white and free of impurities (Head, 14-15, 144-145).
My favorite use of beeswax outside of the hive are the lotion bars created and
sold by Brittany Sinclair and her family. Their company is called ‘Honey B Soaps’ and
they create a variety of natural products that my family and I have been using for years.
Brittany generously donated a selection of her products for our recent County 4-H raffle.
Her lotion soaps are made with beeswax and butters which help soften skin.
They’re a nice size to fit in your hand and the surface is crafted to look like a bee. She
offers scents from peppermint to patchouli, and I love the lavender one especially.
I proudly support Brittany and her family as well as the beekeeper from
Richardton, North Dakota, which is where she buys her beeswax. Through purchasing
lotion soaps made with beeswax, my often dry hands are nourished and my community
is improved, with money going back into local businesses and into the bees that support
them.
Beeswax truly is ‘the whole ball of wax’ for North Dakota. This miraculous
moldable material used within the everyday life of bees is the champion behind honey
production. It enables my state to provide for our nation’s sugar fix, and allows me to
brag about North Dakota and improve it.

Bibliography 

Honey Production by State 2023.
worldpopulationreview.com/state-rankings/honey-production-by-state.
Head, Vivian. The Beekeeping Handbook: A Practical Apiary Guide for the Yard,
Garden, and Rooftop. Fox Chapel Publishing, 2012, 14-15, 144-145.
Jones, Richard A., Sharon Sweeney-Lynch. The Beekeeper’s Bible: Bees, Honey,
Recipes & Other Home Uses, edited by Ann Harman et al., Stewart, Tabori and
Chang, pp.123-126, 285, 2011.
Knilans, Susan and Jacqueline Freeman. What Bees Want: Beekeeping as Nature
Intended. Countryman Press, 2022, pp.143-144.
—. “The Secrets of Honeycomb – PerfectBee.” PerfectBee, Nov. 2020,
www.perfectbee.com/learn-about-bees/the-science-of-bees/the-secrets-of-honey
comb.

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