Wax is more important to modern life than you might realize. If you’ve recently eaten an apple, lit a candle, used lotion, chewed gum or driven on a tire, you’ve come into contact with some of the most common modern applications of wax
The uses don’t stop there – due to their ability to form waterproof and protective barriers, waxes are used in almost any situation where a surface requires protection from the atmosphere and/or elements.
From plywood to PVC, to crayons and ink, we use a huge array of different waxes in different ways in order to make life easier. Ancient cultures, especially the ancient Egyptians and Romans, coveted natural waxes found from insects and plants. Beeswax was a prime component in candles at that time, and early writing tablets were coated with a thin layer of wax that could be easily scraped off with a stylus during tabulation sessions.
We still use waxes gathered from plants and animals today, but the vast majority of wax used industrially is paraffin wax, which comes from petroleum. Technically, of course, this is still natural wax from the remains of plants and animals, buried underneath the planet’s surface for millions of years.
Plants and animals rely on waxes for a wide variety of survival methods. Each species tends to make its own special wax blend, however in general they are a mixture of fatty acids and alcohols that together form a semi-solid protective layer. This layer can be easily found on the surface of plant leaves, where it is used to help prevent excess evaporation and reduce weather damage.
Carnauba wax is a common plant wax, scraped off of the surface of specific palm trees and used to help surfboards and dental floss glide through their motions. Insects like beetles rely on wax coatings to protect themselves from harsh weather, and honey bees enjoyed wax so much they decided to live in it. Unfortunately for global sperm whale populations, a unique wax was found to exist in the brain cavity of mature sperm whales and was heavily exploited in the industrial era.
Most of these “new age” natural waxes can be used straight from the source, but for most commercial applications they usually go through a refining process focused on altering their properties for specific purposes and removing impurities.
Paraffin and other petroleum waxes are highly refined by definition, and there are multiple forms they can be made into based on their final application like candles or coating paper. Paraffin wax is often mixed with truly synthetic waxes to create specialized blends. Most of the synthetic wax created today is made from ethylene gas.
Because they’ve been around experimenting with wax for so long, insects are a great window into the buffet of uses wax can be used for.
Wax is a common component of the outermost layers of an insect’s exoskeleton, and is used to repel water while also helping retain water in dry conditions.
Some sap suckers like aphids and scale insects rely on wax to keep the sugary honeydew they secrete from building up on their bodies, which could attract predators or even drown themselves and their neighbors. Farmers in China rely on a local scale insect to make a globally renowned wax called Chinese white wax, for example.
This specific wax might not be around much longer, unfortunately, as the insects that make it are currently under attack from a killer fungus. As we learn more about the different types of waxes used by plants and animals and the ways they use them, we will surely find new uses for wax in our own lives as well.
Brannen Basham is a writer and horticulturalist. Together with his wife, Jill Jacobs, he owns Spriggly’s Beescaping. He published his first book, “A Guide to the Wonderful World Around Us: Notes on Nature.” For more information visit www.sprigglys.com.