Bees are industrious little miracles of nature. They’re the sole source of delicious golden honeycomb and amazingly versatile beeswax. However, these talented insects have so much more up their tiny sleeves. Scientists, dietitians, medical professionals, and even cosmetics manufacturers now rely on the other substances they produce.
A special substance known as propolis, from the ancient words for “entrance to” and “large city,” is found sealing up tiny cracks and outer entryways in a hive. Like beeswax, it’s made from a combination of naturally-gathered components — in this case, resins from evergreen needle trees – and substances created within the gathering bee’s body. It’s a valuable component in many health supplements and consumer products, though admittedly a little trickier to gather than honey or wax. Sometimes referred to as “bee glue,” the bees may use propolis as a hardworking spackle-like substance for their hives. Humans have found fantastic uses for propolis as well.
In this article, we’ll explore the rich and fascinating history of this incredible bee by-product.
The Propolis Process
Much like the honey, propolis is derived through a gathering and processing method.
Propolis has antibacterial and anti-fungal properties.(1) It’s little wonder, given how concentrated it is! The end result of a great deal of work by both Mother Nature and her bees, it’s the lengthy gathering and mixing process that gives it its characteristic stickiness. Roughly half of the propolis is made up of the resins gathered from evergreen and other resin-producing trees, about a third is made of beeswax, pollen, essential oils, and other ingredients comprise the rest.
Within the hive, propolis production will be used to smooth out small cracks and leaks, complementing the beeswax that would be used to plug larger gaps. Propolis’ name is coined from its tendency to be used around the outer edges of the hive as well as the entrance. Because the inside of a hive needs to stay warm and moist for the sake of the hatching eggs and the health of the worker bees, drafts need to be sealed anywhere they appear. This creates a cozy hermetic-like environment that supports the health of the hive’s interior.
Propolis As Protectant
In addition to its “spackle” qualities, the antibacterial properties of the propolis keep infections and bacteria from foraging intruders — mice, other insects, and so on — from invading the hive. This method is so efficient, propolis lends part of its name to the medical term for anything that offers protection against disease — prophylactic.
In ancient Egypt, observation of the propolis entombment of hive invaders led to mummification techniques. Revered bodies of pharaohs would be prepared, wrapped in linen, and coated in wax to keep decay at bay for the dearly departed and putrefaction from harming the living.(2)
While the origins may be a bit grim, the takeaway is that propolis is excellent for keeping diseases and harmful bacteria at bay. In fact, supplements are often used in pill or capsule form, with the propolis taken by users that feel a cold coming on or that telltale stubborn tickle in the back of their throat. The propolis helps create an inhospitable environment in the body for those microscopic invaders, supporting the body’s natural immune system while it works to fight them off.
Have Propolis, Will Travel
Like honey, propolis ingredients will vary widely depending on which hive it is harvested from. Because it is derived directly from local plants, trees, and flowers, the bee pollen and natural oils that create the propolis will vary in color and composition. Some propolis has been found to have stronger beneficial effects for this very reason – studies examining propolis from hives in Brazil have found it may even prevent cavities from forming and spreading in human teeth.(3)
Propolis in honeycomb may ease symptoms of seasonal allergies. Each bit of propolis acts as a sort of micro-dose of flora, helping the body adjust to the common allergens found in pollen. This benefit is easiest for the body to unlock when it’s consumed as part of the whole, unadulterated honeycomb. While present only in small amounts in a chunk of honeycomb, propolis will still boost the similar beneficial healing ingredients in the surrounding honey, wax, and (depending on the quality of the comb), potentially even a bit of royal jelly.
Propolis is more than a side effect of honey production by bees – it’s a powerful, versatile, helpful, and healing ingredient all on its own. Used by ancient pharaohs and modern medicine alike, it’s beginning to make appearances in everything from mouthwash to skin products as more propolis benefits are discovered. So the next time you need a little boost to your immune system and want to enjoy some natural energy, why not pop a bite of honeycomb and give the healing properties of propolis a try?