Grounded Ingredients wants to help you mind your beeswax

The use of bee byproducts is on the rise, but bees – crucial bioindicators – are in decline. The many requests for sustainable, locally-sourced beeswax we receive indicate that consumers are concerned about the origins of bee products, which we’re very happy to see. But fulfilling these requests is not easy. Sustainable and pesticide-free bee byproducts are hard to source, let alone organic. Once we found a local, transparent beeswax producer, we quickly realized this was only half the battle.  

by Hailey Gaunt and Jenny Willis

30 September 2021

Wax sheet production at Baviaanskloof Heuning. Credit: Baviaanskloof Heuning

This is the fourth blog in our Transparency Series, where we take a closer look at different facets of Grounded Ingredients. Unlike traditional value chains, we are focused on traceability and transparency, working to create a system where everyone involved – from harvester or farmer to brand and customer – understands each step of the journey.

First and foremost, it’s important to recognise bees as the essential workers of our ecosystems. Performing the bulk of the pollination services inherent to agriculture, bee populations are critical to agriculture and food security, but global bee populations are in alarming decline. Farmers, scientists and beekeepers have been scrambling for answers. As we learn more, it’s clear we need to think more critically about how our agricultural systems affect bee health – yet one more reason to move towards regenerative systems.

Besides pollinating our crops, bees of course also supply us with two indispensable products, honey and beeswax. On the search for a local source of the latter, we turned to Baviaanskloof Heuning. 

A family-run business in South Africa’s Eastern Cape, Baviaanskloof Heuning has been keeping bees for twenty-three years. They now specialise in the production of beeswax sheets for the beekeeping industry, formed out of wax aggregated from a network of beekeepers in South Africa’s Eastern and Western Cape. Beekeeping at a commercial scale for a decade, they have roughly 700 hives of their own, which produce honey and provide pollination services to farmers. 

These pollination services, both commercial and incidental, are where all the trouble lies. On the one hand, professional beekeepers need the business of farmers to survive: for their patronage, but also to access suitable forage for their bees, as safe places to store hives with enough forage are becoming scarce and vandalism of hives is on the rise. On the other hand, mainstream farming practices pose a direct threat to the health of bee colonies. 

A complex issue and the missing organic beeswax 

We were eager to work with Baviaanskloof Heuning because of the care they take to mitigate their bee's risk of exposure to pesticides. "We educate farmers throughout the process," says Baviaanskloof Heuning's Quintis Bezuidenhout, and the farmers are cooperative. "Every year it’s easier and easier to keep our bees safe.” 

But because Baviaanskloof Heuning also aggregates wax from other beekeepers, traceability within their own supply chain is key, and the physical structure of beeswax further complicates matters. The hydrocarbon chains in beeswax are good at storing chemical residues, and thus have a tendency to accumulate toxins over time. Even if conventional farmers cooperate with beekeepers like Baviaanskloof Heuning, trace chemicals can remain long after the application of agricultural inputs has been suspended. 

An idyllic scene on the Baviaanskloof Heuning farm. Credit: Baviaanskloof Heuning

If you’ve ever searched your local grocer for organic honey, you may have noticed ‘raw’ or ‘unfiltered’ options, but an organic designation is pretty hard to find. The same is true for organic beeswax. You might see 'natural beeswax' advertised, or 'pure,' but these terms are undefined and, without further information, they aren't meaningful – particularly in this industry. Because bees are free roaming, ranging up to six kilometres and further from the hive, it’s difficult to determine precisely what they will encounter while foraging. Except in the remotest environments, there’s no way for a beekeeper to ensure their bees won’t encounter chemicals within their range.

The ecological reality is, it's near impossible for beekeepers to avoid chemical exposure for their bees. The economic reality is, beekeepers need conventional agriculture just as much as conventional farmers depend on rented hives for the pollination of their crops. Until organic and regenerative agriculture become mainstream, beekeepers have no choice but to cooperate with conventional farming – and organic beeswax will continue to be an almost impossibly scarce commodity. 

What’s killing the bees?

We can’t pin bee decline on a single culprit. Contributing factors include climate change, urbanisation, parasites and pathogens, but – as with many of our large-scale ecological crises – conventional agriculture plays an outsized role here. 

One factor we can agree on is the use of neonicotinoids, a noxious class of insecticide linked to honeybee Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) or the phenomenon of adult worker bees suddenly disappearing from apparently healthy colonies. Contact with neonicotinoids reduces bees’ ability to forage, navigate and fly, as well as fatally harming bees’ ability to regulate body temperature. Trace amounts found in nectar and pollen, combined with persistence in soil and water, can accumulate to levels lethal for pollinators. 

Despite these known threats to pollinators, neonicotinoids are commonplace in the major agricultural economies of the world from Brazil to the U.S. and China. Studies comparing global neonicotinoid residues in honey show that traces were found in 83% of U.S. samples, and 73% of African stocks. Though they’re essentially banned in the EU, several member states still allow emergency derogations – loopholes which permit farmers to apply these chemicals without prior authorisation. In South Africa, neonicotinoids are pervasive. 

To know or not to know

We understand that most beekeepers operate in environments where monocultures still dominate and agrichemical use is widespread. But we aren’t ready to accept that status quo as unchangeable, or renege on our commitment to transparency. So in collaboration with Baviaanskloof Heuning, we decided to test their wax for chemical residues and share our findings. 

A comprehensive pesticide residue test found five pesticides present at detectable levels: Chlorpyrifos, Didecyldimethyl ammonium chloride, Imidacloprid, Propargite and Tau-Fluvalinate. 

South Africa doesn’t have standards on allowable pesticide residue levels in wax and honey, so we used EU standards (though only loosely defined, and not backed by EU legislation). Our results show acceptably low levels of residues for all present pesticides, except an elevated presence of Tau-Fluvalinate. 

A full frame of honey in the Baviaanskloof, before transformation into the wax rounds at right for Grounded Ingredients.  Credit: left Baviaanskloof Heuning, right Stephanie Gschwandtner 

Here are the details on this: the EU maximum for Tau-Fluvalinate is .05mg per kilogram, while the wax we sourced shows a presence of 0.12mg per kilogram. Almost never found in honey, Tau-Fluvalinate tends to accumulate in beeswax because of its low solubility. Residues can be an issue for bees when wax is reused year after year, but – and this is critical! –because humans don’t typically consume beeswax, we are at very low risk of ingesting more than the maximum acceptable daily levels. A 60kg human would have to fully ingest 2.5kg of the beeswax we sourced from Baviaanskloof Heuning in order to exceed the acceptable daily intake. 

What now?

Baviaanskloof Heuning was just as invested in learning through these tests as we were, and we feel fortunate to be working with producers as knowledgeable about their internal supply chain and as accountable about their process. Together, and better informed, we have our next steps for mitigating these pesticide exposures for cleaner beeswax, safer bees, and more secure beekeepers.

Looking at the results together, it was clear to Baviaanskloof Heuning that Tau-Fluvalinate, which is used specifically to protect beehives against the Varroa mite, was being incorrectly applied by one of the beekeepers supplying them with wax. They are now working with this beekeeper to amend their process, which we expect will reduce levels of Tau-Fluvalinate to well below acceptable limits. This will be confirmed, of course, by additional transparent monitoring.

The presence of the neonicotinoid-class insecticide known as Imidacloprid, too, was relatively traceable. Though the residue level (0.019mg per kilogram) was well below EU maximums, its presence was concerning because of the threat neonicotinoids pose to bee health – this is the really nasty class of insecticides discussed above, associated with Colony Collapse Disorder. 

The likely source of exposure to Imidacloprid is conventional canola fields. Because canola farmers buy seeds that are pretreated with Imidacloprid, this is not something they can easily be persuaded to move away from. Generally applied as a seed-coating, these ‘systemic insecticides’ enter the vascular system of a plant, which distributes them comprehensively throughout the stems, leaves and flowers. 

Hives at work in the Baviaanskloof. Credit: Baviaanskloof Heuning

Further complicating matters, it turns out these canola fields are also important to South African beekeepers and overall bee health. Canola is a superfood for bees: high in nectar as well as pollen, canola flowers during the winter when other food sources are scarce. If bees are kept near to canola fields over winter, the swarms tend to strengthen and multiply in time for the spring and summer pollination seasons - this is critical for working bees and their beekeepers, as many crops requiring pollination are low in pollen and nectar, weakening the swarms that work them through a lack of nutrition. 

Since Imidacloprid-treated canola seems unavoidable at present, we brainstormed strategies Baviaanskloof Heuning can use to mitigate exposure. First, hives working canola fields can be tracked, and after their stint in the canola they can be rested in ‘cleaner’ zones of wild fynbos to recover. To minimize chemical accumulation in the aggregated beeswax product, wax from hives exposed to canola will not be recycled into new sheets.

Traceability and transparency 

It would have been easier – less expensive, and much less time consuming – to stay in the dark about pesticide residues in the beeswax we sourced for Grounded Ingredients. Residue levels in wax aren’t monitored in South Africa, they tend to be relatively low and pose little risk to human health. None of our competitors are very clear about where they get their wax, or what it contains. But without testing we don’t know, and if we don’t know then we can’t improve. 

The interventions we’re working on with Baviaanskloof Heuning are by no means fool-proof, but they’re a start – and a start that we wouldn’t have had, had we chosen not to test. By working to reinsert transparency and traceability into our supply chains, we open an avenue for the market to demand better bee byproducts and apply pressure on our agricultural system to move towards more regenerative methods.

Support this collaborative work for cleaner beeswax, safer bees, and more secure beekeepers: shop Baviaanskloof Heuning's Beeswax here >>