If you’re into bees, whether you keep one hive or a thousand, you know that the wish list of equipment can seem endless — and expensive. Some items are an absolute must, such as hive bodies, frames, a hive tool, and, most would argue, a smoker and a veil. On the other hand, items for extracting that luscious liquid gold — honey — tend to be more on the wish list of expensive “wants” for many of us. But there’s good news: They don’t have to be. With a bit of ingenuity, and maybe a few dollars, you can start building your extraction equipment one item at a time, starting with a simple solar wax melter. Many variations are possible, so let the following methods be a starting point.
Keep It Simple
Before we get into the methods, I must say one thing first: A lot of new beekeepers tend to “rinse” their wax before beginning the melting process. Rinsing is never necessary. Allow the bees to clean that wax of every last trace of honey as soon as you’ve extracted all that you can get. I assure you, your bees will appreciate it, as it takes a literal lifetime for a single worker bee to make 1⁄12 teaspoon of honey. Allowing the girls to reclaim those drops of honey will be time well-spent for both you and the bees.
If you live in the country, set your wax outside in a wide-bottomed pan at least 50 to 100 feet from the apiary, and watch the bees do their work. You may see a bit of fighting around the wax pile, but robbing of hives shouldn’t be an issue if you’re far enough away from the apiary. If you’re in town and have to consider neighbors, place an empty hive body on top of each hive (remove the lid, of course), lay a small piece of wax paper or newspaper on top of a few of the frames, then place the honey-coated wax on top. Replace the lid, close all upper entrances tightly, and walk away. By morning, every drop of honey will be gone, and the wax will be ready for melting. You’ll not only save yourself time and water, but you’ll also feed the bees.
Swap the Stove for the Sun
Melting beeswax doesn’t have to be complicated. A double boiler heated on the stove does a fine job for small quantities of beeswax, but there’s a catch. Not only is the wax messy in the kitchen, but it’s a fire hazard as well. Beeswax melts at about 145 degrees Fahrenheit and has a flashpoint of 400 degrees. This means that the melting wax must be closely monitored at all times — time that could be better spent doing other beekeeping tasks.
Instead of slaving over the hot stove, turn that pot into a solar wax melter. No one has to stand by to watch the temperature, no mess is left in the kitchen, and no electricity is used. This works best with aluminum and stainless steel pots 1 gallon or larger in size. On a sunny, hot day, set the pot outside. If you have space on concrete in the sun, or another spot that collects extra heat in the summer, use that as your location. Place an aluminum foil pan in the bottom of the pot to catch the wax as it melts. It’s also a good idea to add about 1 cup of water to the bottom of the foil pan to help keep wax from sticking to the sides.
Once the foil pan is in place, hang a colander or other strainer over the opening of the pot. It’s best if the bottom of the strainer is within a few inches of the foil pan to keep wax from running outside of the foil. Line the strainer with a damp paper towel to serve as a debris filter. Fill the strainer up to the top lip with wax. To keep the heat inside, tightly cover the opening of the outer pot with plastic wrap or repurposed, clear plastic bags that allow the sun to beat down on the wax. Make sure the edges stick tightly to the pot all the way around; you can use duct tape, large rubber bands, or bungee cords for this. Then, walk away. By the end of the day, if the weather’s bright, sunny, and hot, all the wax will be melted and floating in the foil pan. On especially hot days, this little solar oven is capable of melting multiple batches of wax, all without messing up the kitchen.
Permanent Solar Wax Melter
My favorite wax melter, and the one I now use every year, is a slightly modified version of a solar oven. Solar cookers are simple outdoor ovens that trap the sun’s energy and work on the same principle that heats your car to excruciating temperatures on hot summer days. Sunlight enters the cooker through glazing — material with similar properties to a vehicle’s windows — and gets trapped. This trapped sunlight converts to heat energy, which in turn cooks the food. On a bright, sunny day, the temperature in the most basic solar oven can reach 250 degrees. When used as a wax melter, this higher temperature makes quick work of large batches of wax. On a good day, I can load this melter two or three times, using one or two turkey-sized aluminum foil pans.
For the highest degree of heat retention, purchase enough plywood to build two topless, floored boxes, one smaller than the other. Alternatively, opt to build only one box, which will work despite a slightly lower overall temperature. To determine how much plywood is needed, follow these guidelines:
- Build the smaller box to accommodate the largest pan you intend to use. This may be a single 9-by-13-inch pan, or a turkey-sized pan. Allow for 5 inches or more of airflow around the sides of the pan, and at least 5 inches of headspace above the highest point of the pan to allow room between the wax pile and glazing.
- Build the larger box to be approximately 1 to 2 inches taller, wider, and longer than the smaller box, to allow for insulation. The back wall of the box should be a few inches taller than the front to allow for better light penetration. (Think of a cold frame and how it’s angled front-to-back to allow for the best sun absorption.)
Note: You can rest the glazing on top of the box or build a frame out of 1x2s.
Tools and Materials
- Hammer or drill
- Circular saw
- Plywood (enough for the dimensions outlined above)
- Black, nontoxic spray paint (optional)
- Insulation, such as foam, newspaper, and old sheets (only if building 2 boxes)
- Glazing, such as LEXAN, plexiglass, or clear plastic
- Hinges (optional)
- Nails or screws
- Bricks, rocks, or scrap wood
- Turkey-sized aluminum foil pans (1 to 2)
- Large bowl
- Build one or two boxes to your desired dimensions. Apply black nontoxic paint across the bottom and sides of the smaller box. If using 2 boxes, line the bottom of the larger box with 1 to 2 inches of insulation. Place the smaller box on top of the larger box’s insulated floor, and then stuff insulation between the walls.
- Build a frame for the glazing according to the outer box’s outside dimensions. Secure glazing with silicone adhesive or screws.
- Place glazing on the outer box. Add hinges to one side, or allow glazing to rest on the outer edges.
- Once assembled, use bricks, rocks, or scrap wood to angle the wax holder in the innermost box, just as with the “Hive-Body Wax Melter” (below). Cut an opening in the crease of the pan for the wax to melt through, and then add a paper towel to the pan to filter the wax. Place a bowl beneath to catch the wax from the pan, and close the lid. That’s all there is to a more permanent solar wax melter. Purchased retail, this version starts at around $150. However, this wax melter costs closer to $50 to build. Even better, I can separate the two boxes and instantly have two melters going at the same time by adding one more piece of glazing. Now that’s saving time and money.
Hive-Body Wax Melter
If you have more wax than the pot method can handle, the hive-body wax melter should suit your needs. This is as simple as the pot melter, with the added benefit of handling a 9-by-13-inch pan’s worth of wax in a single session. Another benefit of the hive-body melter is the tendency for it to hold heat better than a single pot. Also, if you forget about the melter and the night turns rainy, no need to worry. The hive box is designed to be outside, and the wax won’t mind a bit of rain if the top cover fails.
Tools and Materials
- Hive cover
- Empty deep super (1) or empty medium supers (2)
- Rocks, bricks, or scrap wood pieces (2)
- 9-by-13-inch aluminum foil pan
- Damp paper towel, cheesecloth, or thin towel
- Small container
- Clear plastic wrap, or glass or plastic window (keep sharp edges well-covered for protection)
- Duct tape, thick rubber band, or bungee cord (if using plastic wrap)
- Turn the hive cover upside down, and set the hive body inside to create a relatively tight seal. Place the bricks, rocks, or wood inside and toward the back of the hive body. Cut an opening in the crease of one end of the aluminum pan measuring approximately 4 inches wide by 2 inches high to allow melted wax to flow out of the pan. Line the hole with the damp paper towel. Prop the end of the pan opposite the cut hole on the rocks or bricks to provide an angle for better wax flow.
- You’ll likely need to raise the entire pan off the bottom of the hive body to allow room for the receiving container. Do this by adding more rocks, bricks, or wood under the back of the pan. Once the pan is adjusted, place the small container that’ll catch the melted wax under the hole, with a little bit of water poured into it. Add the wax to the pan, and then cover the top of the hive body with plastic wrap (just as directed with the pot method), or set the glass or plastic window across the top. Then, walk away. Come back later in the day, and you should discover filtered wax floating in the receiving container.
Note: If you don’t have an extra hive body lying around, repurpose an old cooler that’s lost its lid, and omit the hive cover.
While beekeeping can be an expensive hobby, or an addictive sideline, the equipment doesn’t have to break the bank. With a little ingenuity and time, much of the extraction equipment can be built better and for less cost than the retail versions. And while wax melters in general are considered a luxury item by many small-scale beekeepers, they don’t have to be. Build your own, and enjoy hands-free wax melting like the pros.
Kristi Cook and her family have been building their homestead for many years. Kristi shares their vast experiences through her articles, workshops, and her blog, Tender Hearts Homestead..