burst of life

In a perfect world, my schedule aligns itself such that I have a little time to kick around in the kitchen on any given Sunday. It doesn’t matter when or what I cook – waffles for breakfast, an afternoon batch of cookies, a pot of soup for later in the week. Anything will do really. There’s just something about lazing around the kitchen on Sunday that feels very right.

This past Sunday though, I did an entirely different kind of cooking. My kitchen looked more like a science lab than a food prep zone. I even fished out the fire extinguisher from behind the woodpile and familiarized myself with its operation – just in case. Sunday marked an annual event that is one of my favorite activities. Rendering beeswax.

The best time to clean beeswax, in my experience, is in the dead of winter when it is grey and lifeless and the thermometer can barely get itself above 0ºF. Here’s why. When you finally get all of your containers of miscellaneous wax rounded up and pull that lid off of your old Folger’s wax can, you will be instantaneously met with a burst of life. Brace yourself, because it’s going to smell like the sweetest, most gentle summer day you can imagine. And if you’re not ready for it, it can be confusing – all of a sudden feeling like you’ve just come in, barefoot, with a fistful of perfect sweet pea blooms. Reality will eventually settle back in, but you should run with your summery fantasy for as long as you can.

I’ve always had a penchant for wax – especially hot wax. As a kid, I used to get scolded at fancy dinners for dipping all ten of my fingers, one by one, into the little pools of hot candle wax. A crime I’m still guilty of as an adult. I’m pretty sure I got a stern glance across the table just this past Thanksgiving. Cheap thrills, I know, but love the feel of the wax as it cools and forms to my fingertips. Needless to say, when the day comes where I get to boil down a little cauldron full of wax, I feel like a kid in a candy shop.

My biggest haul of wax comes during honey harvest time in late summer. Before each frame of honey can be extracted, the thin layer of wax that protects and seals in the honey needs to be scraped off with a heated knife – called an uncapping knife. And what you’re left with (coincidentally) is a pile of “cappings.” I scrape this sticky mess, residual honey and all, into containers and store them away for a less busy time. I also get wax from rouge bits of comb that my girls build throughout the summer. To keep their hives more orderly, I scrape off the comb from areas where it doesn’t belong (at least in my humble opinion) and add it to my wax can.

The process of rendering wax is pretty cool – even if you aren’t a wax fiend. Essentially, the wax needs to be cleaned of any debris, residual honey, bee dirt, etc. This is done by scraping all of the wax bits and honey-laden cappings into a big pot with a bit of water in it. This messy concoction is slowly heated to the wax melting point (180ºF) over a double boiler. Here’s where the potential for a fire extinguisher comes in. It would take a catastrophic spill, but molten wax is scarily flammable, so I figure a little preparedness goes a long way.

After the pot is removed from the heat, the wax floats to the top as it cools while the water and most of the debris settles out below. Once it is completely cooled, a neat little wax disc can be popped right out of the pot. The slag and scummy water get tossed into the compost pile. The process is then repeated, only with no water added the second time around. The final melted wax is strained through cheesecloth as it’s poured into a mold. What results is clean, smooth, sweet-smelling wax in the most lovely shade of pale yellow. It’s plain gorgeous. And pretty amazing when you consider all of the hundreds of hours of bee energy that went into creating it.

So what do I do with all of my beeswax – besides dipping my fingers into it? I dabble a bit with making lotion bars and lip balm. I keep a bar in the kitchen drawer for odd household maintenance tricks. And I’ve turned out some pretty crude looking candles. But my most favorite thing is to simply hold it. I keep a chunk at my desk to remind myself of bigger things. Things more real than all my little day to day trifles. Something way more powerful than my triumphs. Some ancient force that is buried deep within. And it works. Because when I press that piece of cool wax against my cheek and inhale, I can remember.

4 Responses to “burst of life”

  1. 1 Julie Buckles January 24, 2012 at 3:25 pm

    Mmmm. I can smell it. Beautiful, Jill.

  2. 2 Ann January 24, 2012 at 4:40 pm

    Thank you Jill for the beautiful lesson in beekeeping, the gratitude for nature’s perfection, and the promise of summer.

  3. 3 Pat Juett January 24, 2012 at 6:42 pm

    What a perfect day to be reminded of ancient forces buried deep within. Today I got my vitamin d not from a pill. Oh Joy!

  4. 4 spiceandmore January 21, 2013 at 10:31 pm

    Nice idea to do it in winter. I have a box of cappings that desperately needs to be melted and made into something. I love your gorgeous wax moulds…I must look out for some. I agree that they would be lovely to just hold and look at!

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