The Queens are just beginning to lay as you read these words. Queen bees are stirring and, for an old bee keeper such as myself, spring hasn’t sprung until the bees start to venture forth from their winter hive. Let me tell you a bit about one particular bee product: Propolis (also known as “bee glue”).
Propolis is a substance which the bees create from tree sap and which they use to caulk their hives. The derivation of the word refers to “pro” = “before” and “polis” = “the city or community” signifying “that which stands before or protects the community”. It is generally thought to be composed of 55% resins and balsams (birch and popular), 30% waxes, 10% etheric oils and 5% pollen (Der Imkerfreund). Bees gather the raw material from tree buds, bring it back to their hive and transform it into a gluey substance known to much of the world as “Russian penicillin” on account of Russian and Eastern European countries utilizing its potent anti‑biotic properties.
The typical modern hive is 50,000 cm3 and houses 60,000 bees. It doesn’t take a public health official to realize that sanitation is the honeybee’s number one concern. How do they keep that moist, sugar-laden, warm hive space free of bacteria and other infectious organisms? Propolis is the answer. The bees varnish the inside of their hive with propolis thereby sterilizing and sealing wherever it is applied. A more remarkable example of bees’ capacity to sterilize involves a luckless field‑mouse caught invading the hive. The bees will sting it to death but what can they do with a corpse too large to drag out of the hive? They proceed to coat the dead mouse with propolis effectively mummifying it and thereby preserving the sterile interior of their hive. The preservative properties of propolis were not lost on the bees. None other than the great Stradivarius revealed that he used a homemade “propolis varnish” to seal the wood of his priceless violins.
The history of propolis is intriguing. Webster’s Third New International Dictionary defines Myrrh as “a yellow to reddish brown aromatic bitter gum resin that was used by the ancients as a remedy for local application”. Sounds like propolis to me. That means that the Wise Men actually brought bee-glue (myrrh) as a gift of the Christ child. A topical anti‑biotic of such potency would have made a timely gift for a holy newborn. Webster’s also defines “balm” as a sticky resinous substance used by honey bees to varnish the insides their hives… “ What about the famous “Balm of Gilead”?
Perhaps this most ancient and potent remedy may have been propolis. Closer to the present, a propolis and vaseline ointment called Propolisin or Propolis‑Vasogen was used during the Boer’s War (1899‑1902). This natural product, still available from bee hives everywhere, has a lustrous history indeed!
How does propolis work? In order to understand the medicinal value of propolis, we need to understand its main component, bioflavanoids. A bioflavanoid is a chemical which aids in the anti‑oxidant effect of vitamin C. It protects of blood vessels by aiding in the absorption of oxygen thereby making blood vessel walls less fragile and more flexible. For example, varicose veins are unhealthy because they are starved for oxygen. They consume 3‑fold less oxygen and produce more lactic acid than do healthy veins. Bioflavaniods allow the walls of veins to absorb more oxygen thereby effectively treating varicose veins. Another function of bioflavanoids is to act as stabilizers of collagen. In this service it augments the effect of vitamin C. Propolis has significant anti‑oxidant properties (free radical scavenging) as noted by electron spin resonance spectroscopy. It inhibits cytochrome‑C‑ reductase pathways which also serves an anti‑oxidant function.
Now we’re not just talking folk-medicine here. Propolis has been tested in laboratories in a variety of manners including culture plates, plant studies and animal models. In plant work: propolis, in concentration of 10 ‑ 5, when compared to controls, was 40% more effective in treating the cucumber mosaic virus, 22% more so in treating the tobacco spotting virus and 18% more so in treating tobacco necrosis virus. In animal studies: the anesthetic effect of hydroalcoholic propolis is equivalent to 5% Novocain in sheep and dog abdominal surgery with no change in pulse, breathing, temperature and reflex excitability. Propolis’s anesthetic properties are 3.5 times greater than cocaine and 5.2 greater than Novocain. Propolis has interesting anti‑cancer potential as demonstrated by its caffeic acid phenethyl ester being preferentially cyto‑toxic on tumoral cells. The anti‑tumoral property of Ethanol Extract of Propolis (EEP) is significant and lasting. In addition, mice irradiated with 60 CO gamma radiation survived significantly longer than controls which died of cancer.
What are the health uses of propolis? The study of propolis has produced a wealth of clinical information. The research can be divided into what happens when you eat the stuff and what happens when you smear it on your cut, wounded or burned skin. Taken by mouth, research shows that propolis leads to a decrease in Herpes virus replication. It also dropped total cholesterol by 60% in a double-blinded placebo controlled human study in
For those more intersested in smearing, one might be encouraged to note that in many countries, propolis is used as a first line topical anti‑biotic, anti‑viral, anti‑inflammatory, antibacterial and analgesic (pain-killing) agent. It stimulates granulation and epithelization of skin better than any other known substance and is therefore being used to treat superficial lesions (cervical erosions, post‑surgical sores, vaginitis) in hospitals around the world. Propolis’s most common use is in the treatment of parodontopathies (tooth and gum problems). When compared with sulphonamidic ointments and tetracycline, propolis 30% ointment twice a day for 1 week was a faster and more efficient agent.
Most of the work with propolis has been done in Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union and
Where can you get propolis? From your local bee keeper! Propolis should be harvested at warmest part of day because it is brittle when cold, but sticky and easy to gather when warm. It is insoluble in water but partially soluble in alcohol. For that reason, a tincture can be made from an alcohol base or an ointment from a vegetable oil base. The propolis remedies are best prepared by freezing and then grinding the propolis in a (second hand) coffee grinder. This propolis powder can then be added to alcohol (tincture) vegetable oil (ointment) or honey (cough medicine / burn ointment).
So, while all this is a far cry from modern medicine as we all know it, nonetheless, propolis is good for you and I felt it was time I “came out of the hive” so to speak, as a beekeeper. The bees will be visiting soon and before you swat at them, remember that, in addition to honey, pollen, and royal jelly, these hard working bees offer propolis, an ancient remedy good enough for the Christ child and Stradivarious, so probably good enough for us too!
To your Health!