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How is beeswax different from other waxes?

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May 19, 2008

The term "wax" traditionally refers to the stuff that bees make their honeycombs out of, but it has come to mean pretty much anything that shares similar properties. Waxes include carnauba wax, which comes from a plant and is popular in furniture and car polishes, beeswax, petroleum-based wax, and earwax (yuck!).

The basic properties of wax are that it is easy to mold at temperatures near room temperature and yet has a high melting point (typically above 114 degrees). This high melting point is meant to help distinguish a wax from common oils and fats, which share the characterisic of being water repellent and insoluble in water.

Beeswax is an amazing substance produced from glands on the abdomens of worker bees between 12 and 17 days old. Initially it comes out as clear flakes, but gets colored by pollen and other chemicals as the bees chew it, transforming it into the honeycomb. After 17 or so days, the baby bees collect pollen instead.

Carnauba wax is extracted from the Brazilian carnauba palm by beating the leaves.

Chemically, natural waxes like beeswax and carnauba are complicated substances made of fatty molecules called lipids, as well as fatty acids, alcohols, and other things.

Dr. Knowledge is written by Stephen Reucroft and John Swain, of Northeastern University. E-mail questions to drknowledge@globe.com.

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