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History of Beeswax & Ancient Uses

History of Beeswax and Ancient Uses

History of Beeswax

Beeswax had been used since prehistory as the first plastic, alongside other natural polymers such as gutta-perchahorntortoiseshell, and shellac. For thousands of years, beeswax has had a wide variety of applications; it has been found in the tombs of Egypt, in wrecked Viking ships, and in Roman ruins. Beeswax has helped researchers track down the earliest beekeepers dating to the dawn of agriculture at least 9,000 years ago.

History of Beeswax

Beeswax is the substance that forms the structure of a honeycomb; the bees secrete wax to build the honeycombs where to store honey. Thanks to its rich hydrophobic protective properties, the beeswax is in fact present within cosmetics and body products.

In nature, there are some insects that produce wax, but some Apoidea, especially bees, produce wax more appreciated and used by man. The most used wax, beeswax, is produced by species Apis mellifera and Apis cerana, which are the most bred by humans and, therefore, it provides easier access to this bee product that has a wide spectrum of uses.

Although people around the world—including ancient Mayan, Egyptian, Hindu, and Greek cultures—have all worshiped bees at one point or another, it’s been a long-standing mystery as to when humans began using beeswax.

Now a team of researchers led by Mélanie Roffet-Salque at the University of Bristol has come closer to an answer: The group used gas chromatography/mass spectrometry to analyze 6,400 pottery sherds across Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa for the chemical signature of beeswax, a precise mixture of n-alkanes, n-alkanoic acids, and fatty acyl wax esters. The team found that use of beeswax dates back at least 9,000 years, to the 7th millennium B.C.E., when humans were turning to agricultural lifestyles

Ancient Uses of Beeswax

Beeswax is a unique lipid complex, its ‘biological footprint’, which is fairly degradation resistant, can be identified in the study of the organic residues preserved in archaeological sites. Traces of beeswax found on ancient pottery from Europe, the Near East and North Africa suggest the first farmers kept bees.

Prof Richard Evershed, one of the lead scientist on the study suggested that prehistoric people have long associated with honeybees and may have domesticated wild bees or gathered honey and wax for medicines and food. Humans probably used beeswax for a variety of applications: as a waterproofing agent for pottery vessels as well as a fuel, a cosmetic ingredient, and an instrument for religious ceremonies.

Ancient Egypt

Ancient Egyptians recognized the value of beeswax in mummification and used it for the embalming process. They also used the wax to seal the coffin and make it air tight, further preserving the body.

Egyptians preserved their writings on papyrus and on cave walls using beeswax, and these writings have remained unchanged for more than 2,000 years.

They even recognized the importance of beeswax in health, as prescriptions dating back to 1550 B.C. called for beeswax in various formulations.

Ancient jewelers and artisans utilized the lost wax casting technique, which involves sculpting an object in beeswax, coating the object with clay, and then hardening the clay with heat. The heat melted the wax, leaving a clay shell that was a perfect replica of the beeswax sculpture. Molten metal was then poured into the clay shell and allowed to harden before the clay was removed.

Egyptian priests also created the first voodoo dolls, using beeswax to create figures resembling their enemies before ritually destroying them.

Egyptians also loved perfumes and were reputed to have made perfumed unguents, the precursors to today’s solid perfumes, where beeswax, tallow and various aromatic substances were infused in oil, such as myrrh, henna, cinnamon, thyme, sage, anise, rose and iris. The unguents weren’t sold as perfumes, but rather for a multitude of medical uses.

Ancient China

Apiculture has a long history in China. The Eastern civilization has been dependent on agriculture for several thousands years. Along the Yellow River and the Yangtze River, farmers grew crops and reared animals. One of the animals they found nutritionally and medicinally valuable was the honey bee. Through the practice of collecting bee products such as honey and brood from the wild colonies, farmers started to understand more about bee behaviour and became able to manage some honey bee species like Apis cerana.

About 2,000 years ago, one of China’s most famous books on medicine, The Shennong Book of Herbs, praised beeswax for its beneficial influence on blood and energy systems and attributed beeswax with beauty enhancement and anti aging properties. Beeswax was also recognized as an important ingredient in wound treatment and dietary supplement. Beeswax was also used as binding agent in turquoise-inlaid bronzes as early as the 6th to 5th century BC in China.

According to the “Ancient Chinese Apiculture” by Constantine W. Lau, a biologist specializing in honey bee communication, which details the long relationship between bees and humans throughout Chinese history, the first records of beeswax candles being used in ceremony and of a professional beekeeper both date to the Han Dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE).

Beeswax was then harvested and made into candles (Mi-zhu) and given in offerings to the first Han Emperor (206-195 BCE). Soon after, there is the first record of a professional beekeeper. His name was Jiang-qi (158 CE-167 CE) and he had more than 300 servants working in his bee and pig farm (Zhou Yau 1980)

By the end of the Tang Dynasty (9th century CE), honey harvesting had become a very common business practice in China. The honey harvest had even become a nationally recorded event in the Ming Dynasty (1368 CE-1644 CE). It took place in the sixth month of the Chinese calendar (approximately July).

Other Ancient Civilization

The “father of medicine”, Hippocrates, recommended the use of beeswax in case of purulent tonsillitis.

In ancient Rome, many doctors of the time used to apply a cream known as “cold cream”, which contained olive oil, beeswax and rose water for the treatment of burns, wounds, cuts, bruises and fractures.

Beeswax was one of the components of the first cosmetic cream, which was created by Galen, the great Greek physician, in 150 B.C., composed of beeswax and olive oil, with emulsion of water (or rose water).

Beeswax plays an important role also in Ayurvedic medicine, the ancient and traditional Indian medicine, with the name of Madhuchishtha.

In Western countries, the search for natural products to be used together with drugs or, even, to replace them has lead to a “rediscovery” of Ayurvedic medicine.


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