September is the month my husband and I pull honey, extract it, bottle it, and bring it to market, so I always feel a little extra busy this time of year. Beekeeping feeds my appetite for tidy/tangled botanical imagery. In this case, it’s the impromptu grass brush he uses to brush straggler bees off combs that caught my eye.
Is it a good idea to wear gloves when handing beeswax in the studio? Or is that overkill? When I wrote about this in 2012 I was concerned about chronic exposure to pesticide residues and thought the answer might be yes even for pharmaceutical grade beeswax. More info needed, so I did some digging. Here is what I found.
How does the U.S. Pharmacopeia define pharmaceutical grade beeswax?
The U.S. Pharmacopeia defines beeswax/Yellow Wax as the purified wax from the honeycomb of the bee that conforms to the Saponification Cloud Test. White Wax is the product of bleaching and purifying Yellow Wax and also must conform to the Saponification Cloud Test. Both definitions “have been around since the mid 1930’s and it appears they have not changed much,” according to Robert H. Lafaver, M.S., Technical Services Manager at the U.S. Pharmacopeia.
What does “purified” mean?
To understand whether or not agricultural pesticides can be present in pharmaceutical grade wax you need to understand what purified means. When I asked Lafaver how the Pharmacopeia defines purified he explained that purification processes for pharmaceuticals fall under the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA’s) authority and that some of these processes may be “patented and/or priority information.” He also suggested that I would “need to talk to manufacturers of wax to see how they purify it.” When I reached out to the FDA’s Office of Media Affairs for more info I received an acknowledgment of my question but no meaningful information. “I have not found out anything and will keep researching this,” said my contact there.
Wax cleaning methods range from simple straining to more complex filtering processes. And while the U.S. Pharmacopeia doesn’t determine how wax should be purified for pharmaceutical use, Lafaver said, “it depends on the manufacturer but basically, it is heated, filtered and mixed with alcohol or other chemicals to make it more pliable at room temperature and to remove any impurities (honey comb pieces, bee carcasses, larvae, etc.)
Does the Saponifaction Cloud Test detect pesticide residues?
The Saponification Cloud Test is one of five Specific Tests for beeswax listed in the U.S. Pharmacopeia. These tests are performed to ensure that pharmaceutical grade wax hasn’t been adulterated with other substances like microcrystalline or paraffin. These tests do not detect pesticide residues.
How do you know if the pharmaceutical beeswax you bought online is indeed pharmaceutical grade?
I’ve heard from a few artists who have reported receiving bad batches of beeswax (petroleum-smelling, weird texture) labeled “pharmaceutical grade” from various retailers. When I asked Lafaver what he thought might be going on he explained that the testing of pharmaceutical grade beeswax happens at the level of the pharmaceutical manufacturer and not the retailer. “Pharmaceutical companies are required to perform many, if not all, of the tests in the USP-NF.” However, it may be possible to purchase adulterated wax labeled as pharmaceutical from unknowing or perhaps dishonest retailers who are not required to perform those tests themselves. He went on to say that “if this is the case, then the FDA may not be aware . . . since no pharmaceutical product actually contains the material. Part of the Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs) required by the agency for pharmaceutical companies are to know the source of the material they are purchasing. Buying from retailers could cause issues. Unfortunately, the potential for counterfeiting/adulteration is out there.”
• “All foundation beeswax pressed into sheets and used as templates for comb construction sampled from North America is uniformly contaminated,” according to Pesticides and Honey bee toxicity, a scientific paper published in 2010.
• Wax producers use a range of methods to filter impurities from white and yellow pharmaceutical grade wax. These methods aren’t clearly explained by the FDA and may not (probably don’t) filter pesticide residues which can bond with wax at the molecular level.
• Pharmaceutical grade beeswax isn’t tested for pesticide residues.
• Wax sold as pharmaceutical isn’t tested for adulteration at the retail level (it gets tested at the level of the pharmaceutical producer) so it’s possible to purchase adulterated “pharmaceutical grade beeswax” from less watchful retail art and craft suppliers.
• I recommend purchasing beeswax only from reputable sellers and if you do ever receive a suspect batch, send it back.
• The main risk to artists who handle beeswax on a daily basis is chronic exposure to the stuff artists add to the wax (pigments and such) and not agricultural pesticides which can be present in small amounts. But if you are handling beeswax daily over periods of months or years you need to know that agricultural compounds, including organophosphates, are part of the mix.
• When I asked Lafaver his advice for artists who work with beeswax daily over periods of months or years, he said, “Personally speaking, I would recommend gloves.”
You’ve heard the news. Honeybees are in decline. Yet the price of beeswax has remained relatively stable these last few years. Is there a secret behind the stability? How long will artists who work with beeswax continue to enjoy feel-good prices on their materials?
Beekeepers harvest beeswax from two different areas of the hive. There’s cappings wax that’s culled as part of the honey harvest. And brood comb that beekeepers pull and recycle on a rotating basis from deeper in the hive. While cappings wax is sensitive to fluctuations in the honey harvest, brood comb becomes more available as bees die off and beekeepers reduce the numbers of colonies in their apiaries. So a bad honey year or a high mortality year doesn’t necessarily mean we’re in for a bad wax year, at least not immediately, although enough bad years in a row will disrupt supply.
So what’s the beeswax forecast for 2013?
I was at a talk in Denver last Saturday presented by USDA bee researcher Jeff Pettis, and while the numbers are still coming in, it’s his hunch that the winter of 2012 – 2013 will go down as the most devastating year to date for bee mortality with some commercial beekeepers reporting losses of 75% or higher. The official numbers will look better than that once they’re in due to how beehives are counted. Regardless of counting methods, this has been a tough winter for the bees.
Interestingly, according to the USDA’s National Honey Report, many beeswax sellers are holding steady on their prices even though stock is low.
Current wholesale prices quoted exclusively for white, cleaned beeswax are steady and for 1lb block units at $5.50 to $5.75 mostly $5.50 and for 50lb block units at $4.50 to $5.00 mostly $4.75. Price quotes taken for bulk orders above 50lbs are $2.20 to $3.50 mostly $3.50 for white/light, cleaned beeswax. Retail white and cleaned beeswax prices reported are $16.00 to $20.00 per pound mostly $18.00. Many beeswax sellers have held their prices however, are showing very low supply inventories.
In other words: Stock up.
Molecules get into our bodies through a number of different paths: through food, through water, through just touching substances, and also we breathe them in. It turns out our breasts are almost like sponges the way they can soak up some of these chemicals especially the ones that are fat-loving.
– Florence Williams, author of Breasts
Flame retardants, pesticides, jet fuel particles – these are a few of the compounds science reporter Florence Williams found in her breast milk while doing the research for her book, Breasts. I caught a snippet of Williams’ interview with Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air and was struck by how closely the Breasts story tracks with beeswax. Beeswax, like breast tissue, is a fatty material with a spongelike capacity to absorb nearby chemistry. Bee researchers have identified over one-hundred pesticides and metabolites in bee comb samples. They are catalogued in the paper, “Pesticides and honey bee toxicity.” (Link below.)
What have researchers found in beeswax?
A mix of fungicides, herbicides, miticides, insect growth regulators and pesticides including neonicotinoids and organophosphates.
How do pesticides get into beeswax?
• Beekeepers introduce them when they use synthetic miticides to control varroa mites. These fat-loving or lipophilic compounds “may remain in the wax components for years following treatment.”
• Honeybees introduce pesticides to their colonies when they bring loads of contaminated pollen and nectar back home for processing, consumption and storage in wax comb cells.
• Beekeepers add to the load when they use comb foundation manufactured from processed wax in their hives. “All foundation beeswax pressed into sheets and used as templates for comb construction sampled from North America is uniformly contaminated ….”
While all the contamination methods listed above concern me as a beekeeper, it’s the uniform contamination of wax foundation that most concerns me as an artist. If all beeswax foundation is “uniformly contaminated” then it means all beeswax processed in the same way – gathered from multiple sources, melted and filtered – is similarly contaminated.
I work with wax. What can I do to minimize my exposure?
• Wear protective gloves. It’s been my habit to wear latex gloves only when handling messy paintings and pigment sticks but not when handling encaustic medium. I am reevaluating.
Can’t I just buy organic wax?
Short answer: No. The USDA doesn’t certify bee products. As of today there’s no such thing as federally certified organic beeswax in the United States. Longer answer: It’s complicated. If you’d like to know more about organic beeswax and the methods and terminology U.S. beekeepers are using to work around it, let me know in the comments.
What about pharmaceutical grade beeswax?
Again: It’s complicated. Pharmaceutical grade doesn’t necessarily mean pesticide free. Some pharmaceutical grade waxes are highly filtered. Others, less so. Regardless of the type and grade of wax you’re using, the safety advice remains the same. Ventilate. If you’re not ventilating, think of the information here as a reason to re-think your practices. If your ventilation is good, excellent! Let’s talk about gloves.
Artists, do you use gloves when you handle beeswax in your studio? Why or why not?