When I first started learning about honey bees, one of the first things I latched onto was propolis. What was this word I saw popping up everywhere when I read about beehives? You hear about honey, maybe beeswax and honeycomb, but outside of the beekeeping business I’d never encountered this word before. So I was hooked. I made it my mission to figure out what propolis was, as a start, and why people were talking about it so much.
Here’s the short version: itsis a substance bees make to coat their hives. And it has medicinal uses for humans. But come on, who wants to settle for the short version? Let’s go a little deeper and get the whole skinny on propolis. To start with…
Most of the ingredients bees use to make all their nifty products come from plants, and propolis is no exception. The first step in any manufacturing process is sourcing the materials. For bees working on propolis, this means resin. Of course, this leads to a whole nother conversation about what plant resin is, but for our purposes the definition of a thick, viscous substance that plants excrete is good enough. Honey bees collect resin like they do pollen: scooping into their back-leg pollen baskets and flying it back to the hive. Unlike pollen though, resin is all gloopy, which means forager bees need some help to scoop it out. A lot of bee work is teamwork.
Once our honey bee friends get their resin unpacked, the next step is turning it into something useful. Resin by itself is nice, but when bees have a hankering for propolis, the raw stuff just doesn’t do the trick. Honey bees take the resin and mix it with a bunch of other materials in their hives to turn the whole mixture into the good stuff. What’s weird (and cool) about the process is that the things they mix with the resin (wax, oils, pollen, stomach enzymes, honey) are all already in the hive. Our industrious little workers don’t let anything go to waste, and the combinations of materials they’ve discovered are fascinating.
Okie-dokie, bees have their propolis all sorted out – what do they do now? A lot, apparently! Propolis is called both “bee glue” and “bee penicillin,” a couple names with a breadth of meaning that suggests a plethora of uses.
Looking at the first nickname, bees use propolis for hive maintenance. Honey bees will slap the sticky fluid over cracks and fissures in the hive, both to ensure structural integrity and make it easier for them to keep the temperature inside just right. Winds breezing through an exposed hive are a great way to mess with homeostasis.
Another way honey bees use propolis is to fight disease. It turns out propolis is an antibacterial and detoxifying agent. Yep, a bunch of plant stuff they threw together with whatever was lying around in the hive is actually really good at keeping the hive healthy. Research suggests that the propolis bees lather on the walls and around the entrance of their hive acts as an antimicrobial and keeps dangerous pathogens from infecting the colony. Scientists have described the way honey bees use propolis as a kind of social immune system where each individual worker contributes to the overall health of the hive.
Sometimes honey bees combine the two uses of propolis in interesting ways. Say a suspicious looking bug or vermin wanders into the hive and dies. Could be a problem. The body could carry diseases or parasites. What’s a beehive to do? Like so many questions, the answer is to cover it in propolis! If the corpse is too big to move, they’ll cover it in propolis to wall it off from the rest of the hive. In this scenario, the bees use propolis as both a hive maintenance material, and to ward off disease.
If you’re like me, the first thing you think about harvesting from bees is honey. It might surprise you to learn that people have been using propolis for millennia, basically as long as we’ve used honey. References to it pop up in the bible as the “Balm of Gilead,” the Ancient Egyptians used it as inspiration for embalming, and the Ancient Greeks treated wounds and diseases with it. Persian and Arab sources also reference its medicinal uses.
Nowadays, people use propolis for all sorts of ailments. Propolis works the same way on people as it does on beehives, like how resin works for plants. In all cases, it’s the antimicrobial qualities that really shine. So if you have a sore, propolis can keep it from getting infected or inflamed. Other people use it as part of a balm, like the ones Beepods sells. Improving skin health and healing tissue is the name of the game.
Learning about propolis has been an eye-opening experience. Like so many other things honey bees do, how they use propolis is a lot more complicated and layered than you might expect. A building material that also kills diseases? What’s not to love? That it works for humans too is just the cherry on top. It’s always interesting to realize that thousands of years ago people were making use of the same products as we do today. I hope I’ve sated your thirst for propolis knowledge or inspired you to go search out more information. Either way, there’s always more to learn.