Beeswax Really is the Bees’ Knees

Why is beeswax so important, and where did the phrase ‘bees knees’ come from anyway? Do bees even have knees?  

Let’s start with beeswax. Most of it is produced by young worker bees aged 14-21 days because, as a bee gets older, her wax glands shrink. Older worker bees may help to produce wax if there are not enough young bees, but neither drones (male bees) nor the queen can produce wax. A bee’s wax gland allows her to convert sugar from honey into a liquid wax which begins to solidify as it is cooled by the air. 

A bee creates wax from her wax glands

Other bees then gather the wax flakes and model them with their mandibles (jaws) to build honeycomb. Because this process is so energy intensive it requires a lot of honey. It has been said that it takes eight pounds of honey to make one pound of wax. From building brood chambers to storage cells, wax is essential to the hive. Bees build their home from it, raise their young in it, and use it to store their energy sources, honey and pollen.  

Pollen is carried into the hives on worker bees’ leg sacks which are just below their knees. So, yes, bees do have knees.  

A honey bee stores pollen on her leg sacks to bring back to the hive

The origins of the phrase ‘the bees knees’ are unclear but its use began in the United States during the 20th century. Initially ‘bees knees’ was a nonsensical expression but over time it came to mean that something was excellent. A supposed connection may be to the dancer Bee Jackson who popularized the Charleston and went on to become the 1924 World Champion Charleston dancer. Although ‘bees knees’ was used before Jackson’s time it could certainly be said that her feet flew.  

Beeswax is vital to the survival of a hive. Without it, bees could not raise their young, store their food for winter, or build their home. Beeswax is precious to bees not only because it serves these functions but also because it is so energy intensive to create. Throughout human history beeswax has been revered for its properties of malleability, resilience, and infinite use (as it never goes bad). In ancient Egypt beehives were kept close to temples and beeswax was used for embalming, cosmetics, and wax writing tablets. 

26th Dynasty hieroglyph depicting a beekeeper with hives of bees 664-525 C.E

In the Salt Magical Papyrus we read that the Sun-god Re created earth and sea and that his falling tears became bees: 

The god Re Wept, and the tears from his eyes fell on the ground and turned into a bee. The bee made his honeycomb and busied himself with the flowers of every plant and so wax was made and also honey out of the tears of Re.
 (Salt Magical Papyrus British Museum No. 10051, rector 2, 5-6) 

Beyond Egypt, beeswax was used as a unit of trade by the Romans, a painting medium during the 1st century, and as a tool for casting metal as early as 3700 CE.  

Rich in history and usefulness, beeswax is still a valuable commodity today. It really is the bees’ knees.  

Written by Eve Gersh

-Ransome, Hilda M. “The Sacred Bee in Ancient Times and Folklore”. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1937. Pp. 19-41. 

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