The Great Beeswax Experiment

Before I start, cool news. The first of the interviews I did with Josh Gentry of Snack Reads is up on YouTube.   Snack Reads has published two of my shorts stories: the humorous “Hamlet Revisited” and the action adventure “Servant of Death” (co-written with Fred Saberhagen).  You can find the interview at http://youtu.be/yJUddPrC0-s.  You can find the stories at www.snackreads.com.

Let me know what you think!  And, now, let’s wander into sweet territory.

Tools for the Experiment

Tools for the Experiment

One of the queries I received a few weeks asked: “I’d like to know more about the kinds of research you do – the depth of the research and where you start.  I think a lot of people feel that since it’s Fantasy or SF, that you ‘just make it up.’”

I’ve certainly touched on how I research before, but it has been a while.  (“Find Out What You Know” WW 3-07-12; “Facts or Fiction?” WW 6-27-12).  In any case, this week I have something pretty neat to talk about that touches on a type of research that has nothing to do with books or on-line sources.  It’s my adventures performing The Great Beeswax Experiments.

I’m currently writing the sequel to Artemis Awakening.  There comes a point where my characters need a material that is flexible, firm, easily molded, and not likely to become brittle or dry out.  The level of technology is relatively low, so the synthetic putties and caulks we take for granted aren’t available.

Adding to the challenge, my characters are camping out in the wilderness.  Visiting a store or shop is not an option.  The characters would not have been likely to pack anything like this along.  This world has some very odd elements, but magic is not one of them, so conjuring what they need out of thin air isn’t an option.

Clay becomes brittle when it dries out.  Since flexibility is needed, baking the clay won’t help.  Fabric, even packed tightly wouldn’t do the job.  Resin (as is naturally extruded by many evergreens) is too sticky.  After some consideration, I decided the beeswax might serve my needs.  I’d even established earlier that my characters had gathered some honey.  Tah-dah!

Or maybe not, “tah-dah.”   I started wondering how one worked with something so completely and utterly sticky.

I consulted my friend Rowan Derrick, whose family keeps bees, and asked her how honey was typically separated from the comb.  She gave me a nicely detailed briefing, including mentioning that honeybees produce more than one type of wax.  Propolis wax is used as a sort of glue for sealing the hive.  It is darker in color and harder than the regular wax.

The wax we typically think of as “beeswax” is from the comb proper.  The walls of the cells are very light and thin.  Rowan explained that there are two ways of separating the wax from the honey.  The better method uses draining buckets equipped with a series of sieves.  The sieves filter the honey, eliminating “waxy bits,” parts of bees, and leaving the honey more free of pollen.

The faster, not-so-good method is to warm the honey slightly so that the honey and wax separate.  The wax then floats to the top and hardens as it cools.  This, of course, leaves in bee parts and other residue in the wax and honey (depending on what floats and what doesn’t).

Well, as I mentioned above, my characters are camping.  I didn’t figure they would have brought buckets and sieves with them so, despite the drawbacks, if they were separating the honey from the comb, they’d use the warming method.  Rowan very kindly offered to give me some wax that had been heated and molded, but that otherwise wasn’t overly filtered or processed.  The piece she brought me was about two and a half inches by two inches by about an inch thick.  It was also very, very hard.

No  problem, thought I.  Body heat will warm it.  I put the block of wax into a plastic bag and sat on it.  I sat on it for a long while.  It got warmer, but it didn’t get appreciably softer.

Not so good, thought I.  Maybe body heat isn’t enough.  Maybe if I set it near something warm, it will soften without melting.  (Melted wax would not be good for my needs.)

I was cooking a very large kettle of soup.  I put the block of wax on the metal top of the stove, about a finger’s width from the kettle.  When I went back later, I dreaded finding a puddle of wax.  What I did not expect was to find the wax was as hard as ever.

I spoke about this with Rowan and she commented that the heating process does tend to make the wax harder when it cools.  However, wax right from the comb remains soft.  The problem is getting rid of the honey.  I went off to the grocery store and found a brand of honey sold with a piece of honeycomb inside.  I happily purchased it.

At home, I fished out the bit of honeycomb and dropped it into a small bowl so any loose honey could run off.  I did this several times, getting deliciously sticky in the process.  When I felt I had gotten rid of as much honey as possible this way, I considered what to try next.  Since the individual cells of the honeycomb are designed to keep out water, just dropping the whole thing in a bowl of water to rinse wouldn’t work.

Mashing the lot with a fork, then rinsing might work, but it might also cause the wax to harden, especially if the water was very hot.  Eventually, I decided on a very primitive technological separation method.  From eating honeycomb, I knew that the temperature of a human mouth is not enough to cause the wax to harden.  With the edge of a fork, I cut off a piece of honey comb and stuck it in my mouth.  Even with much of the honey drained off, it was very sweet.

Gently and patiently, I chewed until I had extracted the honey from the wax and was left with a small wad of wax.  I repeated this until I had finished the comb, ending up with a chunk of wax about the size of a marble.  I let it cool, then tried working it.  Cold, the wax was almost as hard as a rock, but body heat was enough to warm it to a workable texture very quickly.   At first the wax was a bit grainy and inclined to break, but eventually (probably as I worked the last of the impurities out), it became flexible and able to be shaped.

I then experimented with shaping what I needed.  (No.  I’m not going to tell you what that was.  It could be a major spoiler for a thoughtful reader!)  Making what I wanted wasn’t quite as simple as I had envisioned, but after some trial and error I thought I could justify my characters’ actions.

Thus endeth the Great Beeswax Experiments.   Could I have just made it up?  Possibly, but I think care regarding little details makes for a much more real-seeming book.  As I’ve said before, when you’re asking your readers to accept the wildly unlikely (like telepathy or faster than light travel), it’s only fair to make sure that other elements are solidly grounded in reality.

And I do think it was one of my more tasty bits of research!

Advertisements

8 Responses to “The Great Beeswax Experiment”

  1. Heteromeles Says:

    It’s great that you had so much fun with beeswax. It’s lovely stuff.

    That said, and just to be my usual obnoxious self, there is a reasonably simple alternative that doesn’t involve getting stung: http://wildernessguide.wordpress.com/2013/09/12/making-pine-pitch-glue/ (the point is that resin gets a lot less sticky and more plastic if you temper it with something, like the ashes from a fire).

    Also, if we’re talking about an untapped (ahem) wilderness world, things like asphalt seeps would be plausible in petroleum-rich areas. The Chumash, for example, used asphalt quite a lot.

    • janelindskold Says:

      Actually, pitch pine glue wouldn’t work for my needs because of how it hardens. However, this was a very interesting link.

  2. Chris K. Says:

    Sharing!

  3. Chad Merkley Says:

    That’s a cool little detail. Processing the wax by mouth makes a lot of sense, and seems like a creative, spur of the moment solution that really adds some authenticity.

    I seem to recall some real-life examples where pre-modern cultures used teeth and saliva to process things: Kava root in some parts of Polynesia was (is?) chewed, spat out, and then dissolved in water to make an intoxicating drink. And the Inuit chewed on hides and skins as part of their leather-making process. I’m not finding further details in a quick on-line search, though. There are probably other examples from all over the world.

    So, Jane, I think it’s possible you may have re-invented an ancient technique for refining beeswax.

    • janelindskold Says:

      Processing by mouth goes on even in today’s hygiene-obsessed culture. Licking your finger before turning the page of a book… Putting a point on a thread before threading a needle.

      I bet there are lots of other examples!

  4. Paul Says:

    Impressive research! You could have just made something up and I probably wouldn’t have known any better, but someone out there would. A friend of mine, who knows his firearms, keeps showing me bloopers on the TV show, “Castle,” and the early James Bond movies, and he lament that, with their undoubted large budgets, why can’t they get it right? Obviously you do!

    • janelindskold Says:

      Well, I try… The problem are those errors you make because you don’t know to ask the question. That’s on reason editors are valuable. They often know what questions to ask, even if they don’t know the answer.

  5. Other Jane Says:

    Impressive! That’s going to real effort to get the details right. Even though most readers won’t be aware of the accuracy, it still adds to the authenticity.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: