Mind Your Beeswax: Should we be using this stuff or not?
Beeswax has beguiled us since mankind first donned protective gear and dipped into those hives to see what all the fuss was about. It’s a natural product that feels amazing on the skin and has a great many useful benefits and properties. But lately, it's not only vegans who are raising objections to beeswax. Is beeswax really the miracle substance it seems to be...or are we harming the bees, and thus jeopardizing our planet, by using it?
Why Use Beeswax?
We all love the sweet sweet honey, but what good is the waxy comb? Because beeswax - which is the means by which bees shelter their young and preserve honey stores to ensure a continued food supply - is a useful ingredient with many incredible features. Ethics aside, you won't find an argument that beeswax isn't good for you. Beeswax is...
A natural thickener and emulsifier, adding bulk and solidity to oils, creams and balms
A moisture barrier that locks dryness, irritants and pollutants out
A natural anti-inflammatory product
A skin-healing agent that calms rashes, burns, abrasions etc.
A natural anti-bacterial and anti-microbial agent that prevents and heals infections
An antiseptic which cleans and protects wounds
And those are just the major skin care applications! Beeswax is also used for everything from waxing threads to ease them into needles, to furniture polish, to cosmetics. Ancients used it as a waterproofing agent and to cast metal statues; later, beeswax would be used for sealing wax, grafting wax and, of course, wonderful candles that smell great, last long, and burn far cleaner than paraffin.
Bees at Risk
Of course, as with just about every other amazing natural substance that humans love, beeswax isn't made for us; it's made by female worker honeybees, who work incredibly hard to gather enough pollen to produce the beeswax needed to build their own hives. Then we come along, grab it and enjoy the benefits. Regardless of how you may feel about the ethics of that, there is a big problem: Honeybee colonies are in crisis. Like so many other animal populations, honeybees are in decline for a variety of reasons, most of which have mankind at their root: pesticides, genetically modified crops, rough handling and transport (commercial hives are not static, but are trucked all over the country to ensure crop pollination, which is hard on bees) and poor diet - that's us taking the bees' food (their own honey) and replacing it with cheap sugar-water, which makes the bees sickly, malnourished, and more susceptible to parasites.
If this doesn't bother you on a moral level, fair enough, but bees are essential for human life on Earth as we know it. Ever heard this quote?
“If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe then man would only have four years of life left.” - Nobel Prize winner Maurice Maeterlinck, The Life of the Bee
Of the 100 crop species that provide 90 percent of the world’s food, more than three-quarters are pollinated by bees. Yikes! This puts a whole new spin on things. Bees are indispensable, and harvesting too much of their wax can be stressful to the already-stressed out colonies. It's hard to tell how much stress is caused specifically by harvesting beeswax versus honey and all the other factors above, but given how important their wax is to bees, we can be fairly certain that large-scale human intervention is a stressor. I'm a bit embarrassed to admit that while I usually buy my honey at the farmer's market, when it comes to beeswax, I was previously unaware of how important it is to the bees - and how farming it commercially (which, much like any other kind of commercial farming and fishing, is done cruelly and to excess) stresses the bees.
Ethical Beeswax: Is There Any Such Thing?
Does this mean we should never use beeswax? Some say so, and that is a decision I respect. However, I would grieve if I could never burn another sweet beeswax candle or indulge in my favourite natural lip balm again - and after doing some research, I don't think it has to be that way! At Evergreen Brickworks, I discussed the bee problem with a honey vendor who manages all her own hives and only collects the excess wax produced by her bees as a byproduct. The health of her hives is her livelihood, and she does not feed her bees a harmful diet or use pesticides on their food sources. It's clear that there are small beekeepers everywhere who are doing this. Therefore, going forward, our beeswax will be ethically sourced from Bees Are Life, a local Toronto social enterprise dedicated to sustainable management of urban hives.
Please note that when it comes to honey, buying organic doesn't necessarily mean the bees were treated well - and NOT buying organic doesn't necessarily mean you are buying mass-produced products from commercial hives. The problem with the organic designation when it comes to bees is that they fly and forage, so it's not always possible to guarantee that every flower they fed from was grown organically - even if the bees are being managed responsibly and sustainably. Therefore, it's more important when it comes to honey and beeswax to buy from small, local farmers who care about their bees, even if their products cannot bear the organic designation.
How To Help The Honeybees
If you share our concern for honeybees, here's what you can do to help!
The main commercial product from bees is honey. Look for sustainable, locally farmed honey and beeswax products at your local farmer's market
Don't use any pesticides on your flowers or in your garden
Look for products containing beeswax alternatives, like candelilla wax or carnauba wax
Use soy candles rather than mass-produced beeswax candles
Support bee-helping initiatives and spread awareness to others about this issue!
We will continue to use beeswax in selected products as long as it is possible to do so without stressing and harming bees, while respecting differing viewpoints. Do you have a great beeswax alternative? Please let us know!
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