The A, B, C’s of Bees: Propolis

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We all know that bees make honey that we harvest for our own use.  But what about other bee products?  Wax is probably the next thing that comes to mind.  Beeswax has been used as lighting since the Romans dipped rolled papyrus in wax to make candles.

There is a lesser known bee product that beekeepers rejoice in harvesting or curse, depending on their mood.  It’s called propolis.

What is propolis

In two words, propolis is bee glue.  It is a sticky substance produced by bees that is pliable and sticky at or above room temperature, but hard and brittle at lower temperatures.  Interestingly, only Western honeybees make propolis. They use the dark brown substance to seal small open spaces in the hive and to cover over anything they don’t like (including dead mice).

Scientist believe bees use propolis to:

  • Make the hive more stable
  • Decrease vibrations
  • Seal up entrances for defense
  • Decrease disease by preventing parasites from entering the hive and inhibiting fungal and bacterial growth
  • Mummify dead intruders to prevent decomposition in the hive

Beekeepers think bees use propolis to make collecting honey more difficult.  Propolis is annoying to beekeepers because they have to use a hive tool to pry apart the hive when they need to work within it.

How is propolis made?

While foraging for nectar and pollen, bees also collect resins released by plants, such as those found in tree buds or sap. Bees have also been known to collect caulking compound made by humans when they have had trouble finding wild resin.  Bees carry the resin back to the hive on the hairs of their legs and mix it with beeswax to make propolis.  The propolis is then stored in the hive (up to a pound per season) for use whenever needed.

The composition of propolis is unique to each hive and varies depending on the region and the season. Over 300 compounds have been detected in propolis. In general, propolis is composed of:

  • 50% resin
  • 30% wax and fatty acids
  • 10% essential oils
  • 5% pollen
  • 5% other compounds

What do humans use propolis for?

Humans have been using propolis for as long as they have been using other bee products.

Medicine/Health

Propolis is purported to have medicinal qualities and has demonstrated anti-microbial properties.  Research is ongoing for its use in:

  • Wound protection/treatment
  • Treating burns
  • Protecting teeth from decay and cavities (used in toothpaste)
  • Treating canker sores
  • Treating sore throats as a spray or lozenge
  • Lip balms

One of the more controversial uses of propolis is in treating allergies.  Although claims have been made that it is effective against allergies, propolis can cause severe, life-threatening reactions in people allergic to bees.

In addition, if you are using propolis medicinally, you need to be careful; there is no way to know exactly what is in the propolis.

Other uses

Propolis is used as a varnish and is used in many stringed instruments to enhance the appearance of the wood.  It also works well as a car wax. If you really like propolis, you can even get some propolis gum.

The collection of propolis is starting to become a lucrative business for beekeepers as its properties are studied by scientists.  Maybe its value will eventually replace honey?  Nah, I don’t think so.

Blogging my way from A to Z as part of the 2015 April A to Z Challenge!  My theme for this year:  Honeybees


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