Beekeeper turns beeswax into holiday ornaments
When Bill Lewis took up beekeeping to earn a merit badge with the Boy Scouts, he never imagined it would become his profession for nearly three decades.
Lewis went on to become an Eagle Scout, graduate college and work in the aerospace industry. But after 10 years, he became restless. He said he didn't like sitting behind a desk and working on projects that never came to fruition.
When a friend offered him the opportunity to do maintenance at his horse-boarding facility on 600 acres in Little Tujunga Canyon in the San Gabriel Mountains, Lewis took it. He ditched his high-paying job for one offering less money and physically harder work. He hasn't looked back.
"It was quite scary, because it was (trading) a really good paycheck for one that wasn't anywhere close. I really didn't have a plan for creating my own business at the time," Lewis said.
It was right around then the bees found him again.
"Bees moved back into my life—in the wall of my house—and I had to do something about it," Lewis said.
He tracked the bees in his wall to their home in the ground.
"At the same time, I discovered 11 colonies had been abandoned and buried in the weeds on the neighbor's property. I adopted those 11 colonies," he said.
Lewis harvested "so much honey" he started selling it at craft fairs as a side business. It eventually turned into a full-time job.
The beekeeping biz
Lewis founded Bill's Bees in 1991 with his wife, Liane, who also quit the aerospace industry. With hives located in the Angeles National Forest, Bill's Bees produces several varieties of honey sold at seven Southern California farmers markets and on his website, which also features beeswax ornaments and candles, plus the soap, lip balm and lotion bars his wife makes.
Lewis currently has about 100 colonies of bees. There are about 40,000 to 60,000 bees in one colony, which live in the hive. He said his are "gentle behaving bees" descended from European Italian honeybees that can tolerate heat and cold and are good honey producers.
Bees are essential for pollinating many crops, including almonds, apples, blueberries, citrus fruit and avocados. There are 1,600 species of native bees in California alone, according to the University of California, Berkeley, Bee Lab. Lewis rents his bees to almond growers for pollination.
Making the ornaments
Like most farmers, Lewis wanted to utilize everything at his operation, even the byproducts—which is how he got the idea of making holiday ornaments and candles from the beeswax he collects.
Young bees secrete wax from glands in their abdomen, a process similar to a human sweating. The wax hardens when exposed to air. The bees take the flakes of wax and shape them into the honeycomb that makes up the inside of a beehive.
To harvest the wax, Lewis waits until the honey boxes fill. He removes the bees, takes a pallet of honey without bees to his warehouse and puts it in a centrifuge that separates the honey.
"When we extract the honey, we shave off the thin layer of beeswax that seals the honey in the combs, and we end up with a pile of sticky beeswax. We drain the honey out of it. The sticky wax goes into a wax melter. It floats to the top and can be skimmed off. Nothing gets wasted," he said.
Beeswax is known for its soft, golden glow and sweet honey scent, and beeswax candles are noted for their long burning time. Lewis started crafting candles and ornaments when he realized he could make more money than by selling plain chunks of beeswax.
To make the ornaments, the beeswax is melted and poured into molds, where it hardens to become decorative angels, gingerbread houses and Christmas moose. For the holidays, Bill's Bees also makes leaf candles that float, and pine tree and pinecone candles. All the ornaments and candles are hand-dipped, with wicks added to the candles and hanging ribbons to the ornaments. This time of year, the ornaments are especially popular.
"We do make little ornaments with the molds because they look fun, nice," Lewis said. "We start as early as October for Halloween decorations. We do little pumpkins. We actually made our own molds from real pumpkins."
Lewis made the ornaments himself for many years, until an employee expressed interest in crafting them.
A beekeeper's life
Lewis' days start at sunrise and often last 16 to 18 hours. He lives in a travel trailer in the San Gabriel Mountains Monday through Wednesday, tending to the bees and harvesting honey. He spends Thursdays and Fridays in the office or the warehouse, both near Long Beach.
Each spring, Lewis loads 100-pound hives onto a flatbed truck so the bees can begin their offsite pollination work.
"We move them in their hives. We have four hives on a pallet, so we can lift them with a forklift and load them on a flatbed truck," he said.
To begin the pollination season, the bees are driven at dusk 3½ hours to Bakersfield and unloaded into almond orchards.
"The bees wake up in the morning and fly out and say, 'This all looks different.' They know they're in a different place. They start doing orientation flights and start to recognize landmarks," Lewis said.
After the bees pollinate the almonds, they turn to pollinating avocados and oranges.
Lewis said what he likes about beekeeping is that it can be done on all scales—from the backyard novice with one or two hives to the professional with dozens or even hundreds of colonies. There is a risk, however. Lewis claims to have been stung 1,000 to 2,000 times in his lifetime, mostly when he's not wearing a protective beekeeping suit.
"It's just part of the job," he said.
Though a beekeeper doesn't earn as much as an aerospace engineer, Lewis prides himself on putting his two children through college and making a comfortable living.
"To me, when I quit my high-paying job, it was scary," he said, "but I think my quality of life is better.
The history of beeswax
Beeswax has a long and rich history. Greek mythology includes the legend of Icarus, who flew too close to the sun with wings made of feathers and beeswax, causing the wax to melt and for Icarus to fall from the sky.
In 2015, a team of European researchers discovered the earliest uses of beeswax occurred in pottery dating back to 9,000 years ago in ancient Turkey, according to the journal Nature. Egyptians used it to seal tombs and mummify pharaohs. Ancient Romans used beeswax to make death masks and are credited for creating the first candle wicks. The Shennong book of herbs from China noted the anti-aging properties of beeswax in balms 2,000 years ago. Pounds of beeswax were also found in the wreckage of Viking ships.
For centuries, the Roman Catholic Church used only 100% virgin beeswax candles. Beeswax candles have a soft glow that releases a sweet honey scent. They also burn cleaner, longer and brighter than paraffin candles. Another reason European churches used them was because beeswax candles emit little smoke when they burn, protecting historic murals, tapestries and statues from smoke damage.
The art of making holiday ornaments from beeswax started in 15th-century Germany, when bakers making ornate springerle cookies used the molds to make beeswax figures. They were sold at German holiday street fairs. Hanging wax ornaments were brought to America by German settlers in the 17th century.
November/December 2020 California Bountiful magazine
Story by Judy Farah
Photos by Lori Eanes