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The Effects of Temperature and Time on Beeswax and Honey.

Beeswax is produced by bees in the form of tiny scales which are "sweated" from the segments on the underside of the abdomen. To stimulate production the bees gorge themselves with honey or sugar syrup and huddle together to raise the temperature of the cluster. To produce one pound of wax requires the bees to consume about ten pounds of honey however, bees are thought to produce more wax when feeding on sugar than on honey.

At normal hive temperature of 37C (100F), wax can support a considerable weight and yet can be moulded by the bee's jaws. Beeswax becomes friable at about 49C (120F) and melts at 64C (147F). A high propolis content will lower the melting point but older wax and wax bleached by the sun will have a slightly higher melting point of about 65C (150F).

Beeswax has a high resistance to the passage of heat but if cooled quickly will become pale in colour, more brittle and liable to develop cracks due to rapid contraction. For this reason wax for exhibition is cooled as slowly as possible to preserve the texture and colour. To preserve the aroma of fresh wax it should never be raised more than a few degrees above melting point and then only for a short period. Whilst stories abound of last years exhibit being left to soak in honey over the winter to retain the honey aroma, fresh wax and low temperatures are an unbeatable combination.

IMPORTANT: When melting beeswax always use a water bath and never place a pan of wax directly on a hot plate or gas ring. Beeswax can easily become damaged by localised overheating and if it ignites can burn more ferociously than any chip pan fire.

Beeswax loses its nature at 120C (250F) and although it will not boil as such it will decompose giving off smoke. Any apparent boiling is due to water being present. Wax should only be melted in stainless steel, plastic, tin plated or aluminium containers. Iron rust and containers of galvanised iron, brass or copper all impart a colour to wax. The next time you see a very orange wax in may have been melted in a copper pan.

Honey should only be heated in a warming box, water bath or oven where the temperature can be controlled and localised overheating avoided. This applies particularly to solid honey which cannot circulate properly until melted. Microwaves are considered taboo for heating honey even on the defrost setting because of the lack of control and after heating effect i.e. the honey continues to heat up after the oven has switched off and you will find that honey in jars will caramelise around the top.

Honey absorbs water readily and care must be taken when using a water bath to avoid excessive steam or drops of water entering the honey. Excessive stirring promotes the absorption of water vapour. If the water content of honey rises above about 22% the honey may ferment.

Any heating of honey will reduce its aroma and flavour and in time darken the honey. Heating honey above 50C (120F) will damage its food value. This is because the diastase or enzymes put into the honey by the gathering and storing bees is destroyed within a few hours at 50C. Whether this is the "goodness" of honey I won't go into.

Temperature is only part of the story because honey is affected not just by the temperature but also by the time the honey is held at that temperature. The chart below shows the limits of time and temperature if damage is to be avoided or minimised. As an example honey can be held at 54C (130F) for seven or eight hours but more than two hours at 65C (150F) would result in damage. A compromise can be achieved by holding the temperature at 54C for a few hours and then raising it quickly to 65C and then cooling it quickly. You may do this where you want to filter it fast

Besides heating honey to clear it, the risk of fermentation can be reduced by heating the honey to 63C (145F) for half an hour. This would also effectively stop any fermentation that had already stared but would only make it fit for feeding back to the bees. Far better to avoid fermentation by storing the honey at 10C (50F) or less and ensuring the water content is kept below 22%. The water content is important as the fermenting yeast must have moisture and if the honey has a low water content it effectively robs the yeast of this moisture.

If you have any questions you could e-mail me David Bates at enquire@honeyshop.co.uk and I'll try to reply promptly.

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