Solar wax melter

Processing old beeswax

I love Descartes’s description of beeswax, and while I just talked about it in my last post, I thought it was appropriate to invoke it again, since just yesterday my students and I cobbled together a DIY solar wax melter from bits and pieces around the CLU SEEd Project garden.

Making wax is pretty resource intensive for bees, so commercial beekeepers use special centrifuge machines to spin the honey out of the comb while preserving the wax. But since we’re not super concerned with efficiency at our garden, we just let the bees build anew. When we harvest honey, we cut out the honeycomb from the hive frames and simply crush it up in a bucket with a stick to release the honey from the wax. We then let gravity strain the honey from the crushed slurry of wax and pollen and dead bees. We store the old wax in buckets until we have enough to melt down and re-use. We’ll soon use the pure wax to make useful things like lip balm and candles. A poet friend told me yesterday that when she makes chapbooks, she uses beeswax to coat the threads to preserve them.

To build the melter, I found an old window pane in a construction dumpster, and my students raided the science lab for styrofoam from specimen shipments. (The glass gathers heat while the styrofoam holds it in the box.) We glued the foam into a cardboard box and lined the interior with aluminum foil to help concentrate the sunlight. This whole setup fits inside an extra beehive so we can slot it in and out as we need it. Then I made a screen out of muslin to filter out the impurities from the old beeswax we’ve been collecting from our beehives over the last year or so. Voila! After a few hours in the hot sun, the wax melted through the muslin filter and we’re left with a block of Descartes’s wax, which “still retains somewhat of the odor of the flowers from which it was gathered.”

In addition to its odor, I was also struck with the golden, buttery color of the pure wax, freed from the impurities of age and use. Beeswax starts its life a light, translucent yellow, but within a few weeks turns a richer amber. After a few months of use, it loses its translucency and gains an umber color and grainy, opaque texture. After years and years of holding honey and pollen and brood, it turns a deep brown. But with age the wax can also harbor disease, so it’s good now and again to remove old comb and force the bees to make fresh wax. The bright yellow coloring of the filtered wax compared to the crud makes it look like we’ve resurrected that young, pure stuff fresh from the body of the bee.

Descartes’s description captures the sensory richness of beeswax, particularly its unique odor and texture and plasticity. He’s right that there is something special out it, and it’s a fitting material for his thought experiment, and fitting, too, that the famous and foundational cogito ergo sum (I think therefore I am) should have been inspired by thinking about the properties of beeswax.

I like working with bees as much as talking about them and philosophizing about them. And I like the idea of turning Descartes’s thought experiment into Chapstick–a little reminder that there is philosophy everywhere, even a little on my lips. But it’s also a reminder that thinking about the world may not be enough: there were some bees that made Descartes’s wax, and there was some beekeeper that cared for them and rendered their wax and suffered their stings.