The Beekeeper’s Companion Since 1861
icon of list

The Curious Beekeeper

The History and Mystery of Beeswax Candles

- February 1, 2023 - Rusty Burlew - (excerpt)

Candles illuminate the sentimental moments of our lives. We light them to mark events that bring us sublime happiness and those that commemorate sorrow or regret. Think back. When was the last time you experienced the warm glow of a shimmering flame? When did the scent of burning wax trigger a long-suppressed memory?

Candles mark birthdays, anniversaries, and holidays. They grace religious celebrations throughout the world, commemorate lost loves, and mark anniversaries of the delightful and the horrific that humankind has endured. Candles are equally present at vigils for the deceased and announcements of the newly born.

When I think of candles, I remember romantic dinners, spooky jack-o’-lanterns, and cakes so loaded with candles I couldn’t see the icing. From my college days, I remember thousands of flamelets floating on a darkened lake as the sun tucked beneath the pines. And I recall thrilling hours studying by candlelight as hurricane winds pounded the dorm.

Not all light is equal

In today’s slightly blue LED world, the golden glow of candlelight is more alluring than ever. People seem to crave the saffron incandescence that only a raw flame can provide, those wavelengths we evolved with. Let’s face it, in spite of all the advertising hype, something about LED light simply feels “off.” Our feral selves prefer real firelight over the artificial glow of a fancy diode.

Luckily, beekeepers can provide the very best flames available, safe to breathe and lovely to behold. In fact, it’s a perfect time for any beekeeper to add beeswax candles to a table of honey and hand cream. Even if you don’t sell your beeswax candles, they are worth the effort for you, your friends, and your family.

Beeswax as fuel

We brought honey bees to North America primarily as a source of fuel. Although honey was nice to have, fuel for candles was essential. Of course, the New World was rich in sources of candlepower, but the first colonists didn’t know what it might be nor how to collect it. In retrospect, honey bees were a brilliant choice, a self-replicating source of the finest wax.

Throughout history, substances that could provide humans with fuel have been at the center of civilization. Today we worry about the excess burning of fuel, but for most of human history, we burned anything that would ignite. Like any fuel, candles provide light and heat, while they shed carbon dioxide, water vapor, other gases, and miscellaneous particulates.

Candles and the church

Beeswax candles have long been associated with religious rituals. From early Egyptian times to the present, beeswax candles have been a vital part of far-flung sacred traditions. Some say beeswax flames were brighter than any alternative wax, while others argue that because beeswax produced less smoke, it was less likely to foul priceless paintings and windows. It also kept a large congregation breathing easily in an enclosed space.

Some scholars believe that the use of beeswax goes deeper than its physical properties. For example, the ancient Egyptians believed Ra, the god of the sun, wept tears that transformed into sacred bees that produced honey and wax. To honor the honey bee in medieval times, the only candles allowed inside the walls of many houses of worship were those made of beeswax.

Even today, honey bee lore persists throughout dozens of religious sects. One popular explanation for the sacredness of beeswax lies in its origin. Since beeswax is secreted only by worker bees who are themselves virgins, the beeswax itself is virginal and, thus, pure.

Illuminating colonial America

Homemakers in colonial America who wanted light for the tedious hours of winter darkness had limited options. The most common choices were candles made from tallow, spermaceti, bayberries, and beeswax.

Tallow: During colonial times, tallow was the cheapest and most common candle material in North America and Europe. Made from the rendered fat of family cows, pigs, and sheep, tallow was readily available to many.

To make candles, homemakers dipped wicks made of rushes or twisted flax into cauldrons of melted tallow. Once dipped, they hung the skinny wicks to dry. After they hardened, the wicks were dipped again, an iterative process that gradually fattened the candle into a taper.

The pleasantness of a tallow candle depends on how the fat was rendered. If bits and pieces of meat remained in the tallow, the resulting candles could smell like a long-dead raccoon. Poor families without supplies for repeated sieving could easily face a profoundly reeky winter. The low melting point of tallow (about 99 F) accounts for other complaints, too. Tallow candles smoke easily, drip excessively, and require constant wick trimming to keep them lit.

Spermaceti: First harvested in the 17th century, spermaceti is a wax-like material formed in the head of the sperm whale. The wax must be extracted from the oil by crystallization and treatment with an alkaline solution, an onerous undertaking.

Although it was more expensive and less available than tallow, users treasured it as a superior candle wax because it lacked smell and burned clean. Oddly, the unit of candlepower first defined in the United Kingdom was based on the light produced by a single spermaceti candle of a specific size.

Bayberry: Bayberry candles were another staple of colonial households, especially in coastal areas where the berries thrived. The bayberry (Myrica pensylvanica), also known as wax myrtle or candleberry, is a deciduous shrub that grows to 10 feet in height. It produces masses of gray berries the size of peppercorns that are covered with nubbly wax. The wax must be melted from the berries and separated in a tedious process, but the resulting wax is a greenish delight.

Where I grew up in the East, homemakers reserved bayberry candles for special occasions such as Thanksgiving and Christmas. They were extremely expensive — more expensive than beeswax — but they burned clean and smelled like the holidays, festive and warm.

The price of bayberry candles continues to increase as the bayberry’s natural habitat disappears. In some places, bayberry is locally extinct or considered endangered. As a result, many of today’s “bayberry candles” are merely bayberry-scented or contain only a small percentage of authentic bayberry wax. As usual, the buyer must beware.

Beeswax: Today, as in colonial times, we hold beeswax candles in high regard. Among the most expensive candles, we revere them for their scent, high melting point, low smokiness, and rich, golden color.

Like many other families, we always saved our beeswax candles for the holidays so the scent of warm honey and wax would permeate the house. For me, a beeswax candle is ….