There are many useful products beekeepers collect from beehives that may benefit humans in various ways, including honey, wax, pollen, and royal jelly. These substances are used not only for their nutritional value – in dietary supplements and medicines – but are also often used in cosmetics and skin care products. However, there is another product made by bees that people have valued for centuries, which is once again making a “buzz” in the modern natural health world. It’s called propolis. Find out more in this article!
What is Propolis?
If you’ve ever seen a beehive at a farm or at a farmer’s market, you may have been curious about how the unique structure holds together. The stability of a natural beehive is largely attributed to the sticky plant-based resin known as propolis, also called “bee glue,” which is located inside the hive. Bee propolis is also considered a superfood of sorts, providing essential nutrients to support optimal health in bees – and humans!
The word “propolis” comes from the Greek words “pro” (before) and “polis” (the city). Roughly translated, it means “defense of the city,” and was thus named according to the observations of working beehives by ancient beekeepers. (1)
On warm, dry days – usually above 70 degrees Fahrenheit – bees forage for pollen. On a bee’s journey, it collects resin from plants and tree buds (including from poplar, alder, birch, willow, and conifer trees, for example), along with tree sap, flower pollen, essential oil, and balsams, which all combine together with the bee’s natural secretions and beeswax to form a sticky and pliable reddish-brown, glue-like substance known as propolis. Propolis is produced by hundreds of various bee species, including the European honeybee, also called the common or Western honeybee (Apis mellifera), and stingless bees, comprising the tribe Meliponini (sometimes called stingless honey bees) in the family Apidae. In general, raw propolis is composed of approximately 50% resins, 30% waxes, 10% essential oils, 5% pollen, and 5% of various other organic compounds, such as minerals, phenolic acids, polyphenols known as flavonoids, terpenes, aromatic aldehydes and alcohols, fatty acids, and more. (2, 3)
The resin produced by trees and plants helps protect them against potentially harmful microbes. Once worker bees approach such resin, they scrape it off using their mandibles and then pass it to their forelegs, to the inner middle legs, and then pack it into a pellet known as a pollen basket with their back legs. Upon returning to the hive, house bees help worker bees remove the propolis so it can be used where necessary in the hive. (4)
Bees commonly use propolis as a medicated sealant. First, they use it as a building material to fill cracks and holes in the hive and to smooth rough wood grain or other surfaces. The resin also helps reinforce the structure of the hive. In addition, it is used as a protective barrier against external pests and bad weather. (5) When it comes to propolis as a building material, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, worker bees use it “to line the inside of nest cavities and all brood combs, repair combs, seal small cracks in the hive, reduce the size of hive entrances, seal off inside the hive, any dead animals or insects which are too large to be carried out and, perhaps most important of all, to mix small quantities of propolis with wax to seal brood cells.” (6)
However, propolis is not only an architectural tool for bees, it is also used as a defense mechanism to support the health of bees – and humans. Propolis plays an important role in a bee colony’s health by serving as a sterile varnish to protect the environment in which the bees live from pathogens. For humans, propolis can be taken in supplement form to support optimal health.
A bee colony produces an average of 5 grams to 400 grams of propolis per year, depending on the type of bees, climate, and available resources. Propolis from different regions and bee colonies won’t have the same chemical makeup. (7)
Differences Among Honeybees
The honeybee originated in Africa and spread to Europe, India, and China. It is now scattered throughout the world, including in North America. Apis mellifera is typically a shade of black or brown and yellow, ranging from 3/8 to 3/4 of an inch long, with worker bees being the smallest and the queen being the largest. “A queen bee is elongated and has a straight stinger with no barbs. A worker bee has hind legs specialized for collecting pollen – each leg is flattened and covered with long fringed hairs that form a pollen basket. A worker bee’s stinger has barbs. A drone bee is stout-bodied and has large eyes.” Honeybee nests are found naturally in hollow trees or are kept by beekeepers in wooden hives. (8)
The Importance of Honeybees
Bees play a crucial role in the Earth’s diverse ecosystems, helping to preserve various plant and flower species through pollination. They provide humans with a food source – honey – and also produce beeswax, royal jelly, and propolis, which humans have used since ancient times as part of traditional health remedies for their nutritional value and other purposes.
“Biological activities of honey, propolis, and royal jelly are mainly attributed to the phenolic compounds such as flavonoids. Flavonoids have been reported to exhibit a wide range of biological activities, including antibacterial, antiviral, anti-inflammatory, antiallergic, and vasodilatory actions.” (9)
Raw honey, specifically, is widely accepted for its nutritional content and potential health benefits as a natural sweetener. “Natural honey is produced by honey-bees as blossom honey by secreting nectars of flowers, and honeydew honey (forest honey) by secreting the exudates of plant sucking insects (Aphids). It is widely embraced by all ages, and its use transcends the barriers of culture and ethnicity. The use of honey is even advocated and embraced by all religious and cultural beliefs.” Honey is comprised mostly of sugars and water, as well as some vitamins and minerals, including B vitamins, along with amino acids, antibiotic-rich inhibine, proteins, phenol antioxidants, and micronutrients. Fortunately, bee propolis contains many of the same nutrients. (10)
An article by NBC News states that “one-third of the human diet comes from insect-pollinated plants, and the honeybee is responsible for 80 percent of that pollination, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).” In addition: “Honey bees are [also] a critical link in U.S. agricultural production. Pollination by managed honey bee colonies adds at least $15 billion to the value of U.S. agriculture annually through increased yields and superior-quality harvests.” (11) However, the lives of honeybees may be in danger, according to the USDA, which further reports that honeybee health may be threatened by parasites, pests, pathogens, poor nutrition, and exposure to pesticides. (12) Protecting the health of honeybees is in humanity’s best interest!
Brief History of Propolis
Uses for Propolis Throughout History
Propolis has been used in folk medicine for its antioxidant and cleansing properties since around 350 BCE. In ancient Greece, Aristotle (384 – 322 BCE) is believed to have coined the word “propolis.” (13) Greeks, Romans, Assyrians, and Persians used propolis to support skin health; Incas used it as an antipyretic agent; and Egyptians used it in the mummification process to embalm cadavers and to prevent the spread of infection. (14)
During the 17th century, propolis was an ingredient commonly found in pharmacies in London, England, and it was used as a violin varnish by Italian Antonio Stradivari. The first scientific work published about propolis was released in 1908. (15) During WWII (1939–1945), doctors used propolis to treat wounds. (16) In 1969, members of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) used propolis in human and veterinary medicine. (17)
Today, propolis is found in dietary formulas to support upper respiratory health and other bodily systems; in mouthwashes and toothpastes to protect against cavities; in dermatological lotions, ointments, and creams to support wound healing and skin health; in cosmetics; and in some health foods and beverages. And it’s sometimes still used in rosin to protect stringed instruments. (18)
Potential Health Benefits of Propolis
Natural health experts have long touted the potential health benefits of local honey from bees for immune support, but bee propolis may actually offer more support for the human body. Propolis contains more than 300 compounds, including 150 bioactive ingredients that support good health, such as vitamins, minerals, trace elements, amino acids, phenolic acids, polyphenols, and more. (19)
Propolis May Support*:
- Cellular Health
- Immune System Health
- Oral Health
- Skin Health
- Upper Respiratory Health
- Wound Healing
- And more, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine (20)
Propolis contains polyphenols called flavonoids, which are plant-based substances with antioxidant properties. Flavonoids are also commonly found in fruits, vegetables, red wine, and green tea. Bee propolis is in fact one of the richest sources of bioflavonoids in nature. These bioflavonoids may support a healthy immune response and histamine response during seasonal health challenges, support a healthy internal response, support oral health, support healthy-looking skin, and support a healthy digestive system. However, scientific research on propolis is somewhat limited.
According to some researchers, though, “propolis is thought to have antibacterial, antiviral, antifungal, and anti-inflammatory properties.” Using propolis extract daily in small doses may help strengthen the immune system. It is also believed that topical use of propolis may help relieve canker sores and other irritations of the mouth, as well as minor skin wounds. (21)
Supports Cellular Health and Immune System
According to research presented in Advances in Pharmacological Sciences, the free radical scavenging effect of the vitamin C present in propolis is around 94.7% at 100 mcg and 93.4% at 10 mcg, which makes it a great antioxidant to help protect the human body against oxidative damage and delay the occurrence of chronic illnesses. Its flavonoids also have shown fungicidal effects on certain strains of yeast and some antibacterial activity. (22) Studies on rats suggest that propolis extracts may also help protect against damage to liver cells. (23)
Supports Oral Health
The human mouth is full of bacterial flora, which may have a negative effect on oral health. It is believed that propolis extracts may limit the number of microorganisms in the mouth if used as an ingredient in mouthwash or toothpaste. (24) That’s one reason why propolis is a popular ingredient used in dentistry.
Propolis extract may be mixed with water and alcohol as a mouth rinse after oral surgery or other dental work. According to a study published in the Indian Journal of Dental Research, patients who had periodontal work done were then treated with subgingival irrigation using a hydroalcoholic solution of propolis extract twice a week for 2 weeks. It was found that they had less anaerobic bacteria present afterwards than test subjects who didn’t get the propolis irrigation treatment, suggesting that propolis may have some antimicrobial properties. (25)
In another study, an experimental mouth rinse containing propolis was given to volunteers during a double-blind crossover study, which reportedly reduced their dental plaque by 61.7% compared to those given a placebo. (26)
Supports Respiratory Health
Propolis may temporarily relieve symptoms related to upper respiratory system irritation, especially during seasonal changes. “In one small, double-blind trial of propolis for the common cold, the group taking propolis extract became free of symptoms more quickly than the placebo group. Most manufacturers recommend 500 mg of oral propolis products once or twice daily.” (27)
Supports Wound Healing and Skin Health
According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, applying a 3% propolis ointment to the skin externally up to five times a day may support tissue healing and temporarily reduce feelings of discomfort due to various skin-related illnesses. A clinical study of patients with chronic venous leg ulcers using topical propolis ointment application and short stretch bandage compression found that treatment was more effective with the propolis ointment than without, healing the ulceration after just six weeks of therapy. (28)
How to Acquire Propolis
To remove harvest raw bee propolis, it can be scraped directly from the beehive carefully by beekeepers using a special device such as a hive tool or knife. Sometimes they may use propolis traps made from plastic, nylon, fly or mosquito screens that have small holes simulating the cracks in the hive walls, which honey bees instinctively fill with propolis. Since it is a naturally sticky substance, especially during hot temperatures, it can only be removed from the skin using alcohol. However, in cooler temperatures, propolis solidifies and hardens. (29)
Propolis is rarely available to consumers in its pure, natural form, but it can be found in dietary supplements and be purchased from a health food store or a pharmacy in the form of tablets, liquid herbal extracts, oral sprays, tinctures, or capsules, as well as in topical forms as creams, ointments, or lotions, and in some cosmetics or other products. Propolis in tincture form is usually 50-65% propolis and 35-50% alcohol or other substances. Learn how to make your own propolis infused oil, propolis tincture, herbal mouthwash, or honey propolis throat spray here! (30)
Propolis is considered nontoxic. A sample dosage for adults would be approximately 1.4 mg/kg and day or 70 mg/day. (31) However, for specific dosage recommendations, follow manufacturer’s directions on the label of dietary supplements.
Disclaimer: People with allergies to bee pollen or evergreens should not use propolis products. The typical allergic reaction to propolis is skin irritation, or worse. Always talk to your healthcare provider before adding a supplement to your diet.
Shop Natural Healthy Concepts for 100% pure bee propolis naturally sourced from hives in supplement form or in its natural raw form, which you can add to your own recipes. Try it today; it may make a difference to your health!