Honeybees play a critical role in the agricultural economy of the world. It has been estimated that of every three bites of food eaten anywhere in the world, one of those bites owes its existence to a pollinator. And the most prolific pollinators, of course, are the honeybees.
In addition to being essential pollinators, honeybees contribute many products directly to our lives. One of the primary honeybee products we use daily is beeswax. Many health care products, especially those for the skin, contain beeswax and make use of its emollient, anti-inflammatory, and antiseptic properties. Beeswax is also used to make dripless, smokeless candles. These candles are allergy-free and even purify the air with the honey-like aroma that they give off when burned. Many other around-the-home usages of beeswax are so common that we hardly think of them. For example, many furniture and shoe polishes or construction lubrications are beeswax-based. Rare uses of beeswax include surgical bone wax which prevents bone surfaces from bleeding during surgery.
Because beeswax has such a wide scope of uses, demand for it worldwide is more than we realize. For example the EU imports about six thousand tons of beeswax annually, most of it going to Germany, France, and the UK. In fact much of the world’s beeswax is produced in developing countries and imported into rich countries. The U.S. alone imports 2,195 tons of beeswax annually.
Despite the growing demand for honeybee products, the sad reality is that natural honeybee populations are on the rapid decline. Even managed honeybee colonies dropped in number from five million around 1940 to just two and a half million today. The decline of honeybee populations worsened around the 1980s with the coming of tracheal mites and varroa to the United States. Over the last ten years honeybee population declines have been exacerbated by increased mite and virus attacks in addition to the indiscriminate use of synthetic pesticides in agriculture. From 2006 to 2011 alone, bee populations decreased by thirty-three percent every year.
There is no question but that as the natural honeybee populations continue to plummet, the flood of natural beeswax available on the market will start to dry up. Bees store their honey in hexagon-shaped cells that are “capped” on the ends with white beeswax. The honey and wax are typically harvested at the same time. Thus the number of bees, the size of the colony, the number of cells built to store honey, and the amount of beeswax produced are all directly proportional. In other words, the more bees, the more beeswax they will produce.
As the number of honeybee colonies and the amount of beeswax produced continue to drop, prices of beeswax will likely rise. No doubt there will be some slackening of the market demand for beeswax as many industries scramble to find substitutes. However, many of the applications of beeswax will not allow for substitution. This non-negotiable need for natural beeswax is especially the case where beeswax is used for its medicinal and health-care properties.
Already enterprising companies are developing “synthetic beeswax.” Because the great appeal of beeswax-based products consists of the fact that beeswax is a natural ingredient, it remains to be seen if health and beauty products manufactured from synthetic beeswax will take off and really be accepted among America’s consumers. But even if the public does accept synthetic-beeswax-based products, the fact remains that many of the health benefits of beeswax are found only in the authentic, natural product.