Published in Bees for Development Journal 78, March 2006
Ian Friend’s letter in BfDJ 77 concerning Tanzania’s Beekeeping Past is interesting. However I would like to ask if it is possible to render beeswax without contact with metals? Secondly, is F G Smith's book Beekeeping in the Tropics still in print? Thanks for your help.
Makinde Festus, Epe-Makinde Beekeepers, Ondo, Nigeria
Ian Friend replies
The method used to avoid contact with metal is described on page 227 of Beekeeping in the Tropics* and I see that Smith called it ‘The Tanganyika method’. To repeat his first paragraph: “This is a very efficient method of extracting the wax from all kinds of comb, including all brood combs, and it involves the use of only such utensils as are normally found in an African household. Further, the quality of the wax obtained is extremely good as it is not damaged by overheating or reaction with iron or zinc”.
All the melting of the wax is done in water in an earthenware cooking pot. It is then strained through a beer strainer (made of woven rush) into another cooking pot and heated up again in more clean water. When it is melted properly it is again strained through coarse cotton cloth into an enamelled bowl. Although the bowl is metal, the enamel prevents contact with the wax. Before straining into the bowl the inside surface of the bowl is smeared with soap and water: this is to prevent the wax cake sticking to the bowl. The soap does no harm at all but you must not use fat or oil. The bowls are covered to keep out dust and left in a corner of the hut to cool slowly. You could use aluminum saucepans or tinned-steel kerosene or petrol tins as tin also does not react with wax. However, most African households use earthenware pots and enamelled bowls. Once you get into using metal utensils you need to be sure of the identity of the metal.
Incidentally, Brylcreem used to buy nearly half of the Tanganyika beeswax crop, not all of it. Beeswax has very many uses and it cannot be synthesised. Also it was not the design of the hives in the bee houses which revolutionised handling of the African bees, the hives were standard American Modified Dadant hives. There were two main reasons for the success:
1. The concrete bee houses kept the bees relatively cool and safe from pests and grass fires.
2. The hive entrances were all pressed against the inside wall and the bees exited the hive via a hole in the wall and a pipe which poked through the wall to the outside. The guard bees would always be guarding the end of their pipe entrance and no bee was able to fly around inside the bee house until you opened the hive. Any bees which did fly out of the hive into the room were not likely to be guard bees and would instinctively fly to the bright light of any of the windows. The windows were of metal mosquito gauze, not glass and when bees alight on a vertical surface they always run upwards. At the top of each window was a baffle which allowed these lost and confused workers to fly out of the building. Once they had reoriented themselves they could enter their hive again via the pipe where their guards are on duty.
When working on one of these hives we were never attacked because the guard bees could not realise where we were; they would fly around the outside of the building without finding us. Although an attack involves many of the workers in the hive it has to be led by the guard bees who are young workers of such an age that their poison glands are well developed and their guarding instincts sharpened.
* Copies of Beekeeping in the tropics by F G Smith are available from the BfD website store