What’s the Matter with Beeswax?
Remember when you were a kid and a common retort was, “none of your beeswax?” Well, it’s true. None of the beeswax is yours — it belongs to the bees.
Yet, beeswax is one of the most common ingredients in our makeup bags; of the 10 leading lipstick brands in the U.S., all of them use beeswax or another non-vegan wax. For formulations using the ingredient, beeswax often makes up between 5-15% of the product by weight (1, 2).
Does Harvesting Beeswax Harm Bees?
Simply put, honey bees make their hives, combs, and honey for the health and survival of their “families,” and they don’t have the capacity to make leftovers to share. The inequity of this comes into stark focus when you think about the astronomical quantities of honey and beeswax that humans consume compared to the bees that make it.
The honey industry produces more than 152 million pounds of honey every year. By contrast, a single worker bee may visit up to 10,000 flowers in one day, and produce only a teaspoonful of honey in her lifetime (3).
Like lanolin vis-à-vis the wool industry, it’s difficult to separate out human consumption of beeswax from that of honey; when it comes down to it, commercial beeswax is able to survive and thrive on the shoulders of industrial honey.
Still, it’s worth pointing out that beekeeping practices are not the same from top to bottom, and there are many local beekeepers who are loving stewards of the hives they oversee: They evaluate environmental impact and forage quality, build healthy bee environments and construct quality hives, protect bees from pesticides and medications, and follow best practices feeding and harvesting practices by limiting intervention in natural bee cycles. By supporting these beekeepers it is possible to have more responsible honey and beeswax consumption, but no matter how you shake it, there is still intervention with bee colonies’ normal order of business. Additionally, even if the cosmetics industry were to shift to sourcing from small, ethical, expensive operations, the supply would be no match for the sheer volume of the demand.
THE PROBLEMS WITH COMMERCIAL BEE FARMING
It’s pretty much right there in the name, “bee farming” — it just sounds bad, but the sad truth is there are plenty of damning details.
In order for humans to enjoy the fruits (honeys) of bees’ labors, bee farmers must manipulate and exploit bees’ basic desires to live and protect their hives. Commercially kept honeybees are victims of unnatural living conditions, genetic manipulation, and stressful transportation (4).
Every year, billions upon billions of bees are shuttled across the U.S. to pollinate crops like almonds, avocados, broccoli, cherries, and apples. They’re loaded onto flatbed trucks and tractor-trailers and carted across the country; some of the pollinator workers in California’s almond groves come from as far as Florida.
Carting bees to farms all over exposes colonies to pesticides at an astounding rate, contributing to the deeply distressing phenomenon of colony collapse that has decimated bee populations over the last decade. Exposure to pesticides weaken bees’ immune systems making them less resistant to disease and parasites. At year-end, April 2016, 44 percent of the overall commercial bee population died.
With enormous losses like these, bee farmers are forced to split their colonies in order to rebuild, a process that requires separating bees from their home colonies and tricking them into building around a new queen. (3)
Plus, at a basic level, taking honey, comb, and wax is just theft. Bees collect nectar and use their own enzymes to convert it to food so that they have sustenance during the winter. Commercial beekeepers replace that hard-earned honey with sugar solution to keep them alive through the coldest and wettest months.
What's at Stake
It’s not just that commercial bee farming exposes bees to unnatural and harmful conditions. The harms perpetuated by these practices have further consequences.
According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, of the 100 crops that account for 90% of the food eaten around the globe, an astounding 71% rely on bee pollination. The USDA reports that bees of all kinds pollinate approximately 75% of the fruits, nuts, and vegetables grown in the U.S., and one out of every four bites of food people take is courtesy of bee pollination. (3)* Supporting practices that may be contributing to colony collapse has impacts well beyond the hive.
With so much riding on the vital pollination work bees do to sustain our industrialized food system, commercial beekeepers would have you believe that honey and beeswax are just natural byproducts of an essential industry. This isn’t true. In reality, there are many varieties of bees, and of them, honey bees are not the best pollinators — they simply produce the most honey. Wild, pollinating superstars like bumblebees, carpenter and digger bees hibernate for as many as 11 months out of the year, don’t live in large colonies, and don’t produce enough honey to be worth the effort required to steal it. By contrast, honeybees pollinate while also creating profits for industrial honey to the tune of $333 million a year.
An Unnecessary Evil
Wax, in general, is one of the most important ingredients in lipstick because it creates the structure and shape of the lipstick, while also providing volume. Beeswax fills this role expertly.
However, the good qualities of beeswax are not worth the larger cost, especially when so many great vegan alternatives exist. Even better, formulators can mix and match waxes to create preferred hardness, stability, and texture. It’s not the case of a single alternative.
Other commonly used waxes include microcrystalline wax (a synthetic ingredient derived from petroleum), ozokerite (a mineral wax derived from shale), japan wax (also called rhus succedanea fruit wax), and candelilla, carnauba, and sunflower seed wax (all plant‐derived). Research also shows alkenones offer a sustainable, non‐animal, and non‐petroleum‐derived choice as a structuring agent for lipsticks.
When looking for products that do not contain beeswax, it’s helpful to look for the “vegan” label, but always check the ingredients, too. Be advised that “cruelty-free” does not mean it’s vegan!
Here are the most common names for beeswax: Beeswax, Cera Alba, Cera Flava. Others include Apic cerana, Apis Mel, Apis mellifera, Apis Mellifica, Bees Wax, Bleached Beeswax, Cera de Abejas, Cire d&rsquo, Abeille, Cire d&rsquo, Abeille Blanche, Cire d&rsquo, Abeille Blanchie, Cire d&rsquo,Abeille Jaune, Cire Blanche, Cire Jaune, White Beeswax, White Wax, Yellow Beeswax, Yellow Wax.
If you need a place to start, our Axiology products use candelilla and sunflower seed wax, and are vegan and cruelty-free.
*An anecdote illustrating a world without bees: There are lots of Italian Prune Plum Trees where I live. A few years ago, there were so many plums, whole limbs broke off and trees split from the sheer weight of the fruit. People couldn’t give the fruit away fast enough. The next year saw unusually heavy rains just when the bees were supposed to come. There were no prunes that year.