There's a running joke here in the Pacific Northwest that we can experience all four seasons within 5 minutes and when a season is over, it's over. One day it's 80 degrees and blue skies, the next day its 65 and raining for the foreseeable future, and it only gets colder. When these fluctuations in weather hit, our wellness also begins to fluctuate. This time of year our Elderberry Honey Tonic, Throat and Lung Honey Tonic, and Honey Propolis Throat Spray are in high demand! All three of these products have something in common. Not only do they contain several herbs traditionally used to support the immune system, but they also contain a honey bee product that is not as commonly known called propolis! Also referred to as "bee glue".
What is propolis?
Propolis is a sticky substance the worker bees collect from conifer trees and various other resinous, sap-bearing plants. Honeybees use materials from a variety of botanical processes in different parts of plants to produce propolis. They use substances actively secreted by plants as well as substances exuded from wounds in plants, and include lipophilic materials on leaves and leaf buds, gums, resins, latices, etc (Crane 1988). Propolis consists of about 50% resins, 30% waxes, 10% essential oils, 5% pollen, and 5% of various organic compounds (Wagh, 2013). The biological role of resin in trees is to seal wounds and defend against bacteria, fungi and insects, and bees are intuitively aware of how to make use of this plant medicine for their own benefit.
The composition of propolis varies widely depending on the habitat from which bees forage. Propolis collected from honeybees in a tropical region would be from entirely different plant sources than propolis collected from Oregon honeybees. Here in the temperate climate of the Pacific Northwest, the main source of propolis is the resinous exudate of the buds of poplar trees, mainly the black poplar Populus nigra (Bankova 2000). Honeybees in the Pacific Northwest also collect propolis from cottonwood (Populus deltoids) and balsam poplar (Populus balsamifera). Cottonwood resin is yellow; balsam poplar resin is red.
How is propolis used in the hive?
Propolis has a number of different uses within the hive. Due to its sticky and waxy composition, propolis gets its nickname “bee glue”, from the bees utilization of the substance as a sealant to reinforce the structure of the hive, and close up any potential alternate entrances for predators or weather threats.
Bees also use propolis as an all-purpose cleaning agent to sterilize and prevent putrefaction in the hive – if a small animal such as a mouse dies inside of the hive that is too large for the bees to carry out on their own, they will mummify the carcass in the propolis and it will not rot or smell. Because of the strong antibacterial properties, propolis inhibits the growth of any bacteria, fungus, or microbe killing any pathogen that could thrive inside the warm and humid environment within the hive. The collection of plant resins is known as a “social immune behavior”, and may have evolved to reduce the need to maintain a highly activated immune system (constitutive immune defense) when the insect is not pathogen challenged (Borba et al., 2017).
Researcher Marla Spivak found that honeybee hives inside of tree cavities contained a “propolis envelope”, where the entire inside of the hive is coated in a thick layer of resin. She also found that less than 1% of forager bees primarily collect propolis in the corbiculae, or sacks, on their legs, while other worker bees are primarily collect nectar and pollen.
Propolis has been used by humans for centuries!
Records suggest propolis had been used by the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans among several other ancient civilizations. Like the bees, the Egyptians adopted their mummification methods by using the propolis as an embalming substance and medicine for many different ailments. Depictions of bees making propolis have been found on various Egyptian ornaments. The Greeks had used propolis as an ingredient in perfume, mixed with other aromatic herbs, as well as a medicine. Documentation described propolis as an aid for wounds, ulcers, drawing out splinters, and settling coughs. Romans used propolis as a medicine for very similar internal and external ailments as the Greeks (Kuropatnicki, 2013). Today, in many countries that do not have access to antibiotics, propolis is widely used to treat a variety of wounds. A few drops of a propolis tincture is supportive to the immune system.
How does Mickelberry Gardens utilize the power of propolis?
Propolis is typically harvested by scraping it from hives, or using a propolis trap. Trapped propolis is generally of higher quality than scraped propolis. The trap is installed during late spring to early fall when the weather is dry and there is no risk of rain entering the hive. The trap is made up of several small slits which prompt the bees to do what they do best and keep the openings sealed by packing the slits in the trap with propolis. Once the trap has been filled, it is removed from the hive and the propolis is scraped from the trap and frozen.
When we make our tinctures, frozen propolis is broken into small pieces and mixed with high proof organic alcohol. After soaking and shaking, the propolis tincture is strained. We also remove the wax from our propolis by running it through vacuum filtration. Propolis is fun to work with, as it smells amazing! It will also readily stain and adhere to anything it touches, so use it with care.
Crane E. Beekeeping: Science, Practice and World Resources. London: Heinemann; 1988.
Wagh V. Advances in Pharmacological Sciences. US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health; 2013.
Bankova VB, De Castro SL, Marcucci MC. Propolis: recent advances in chemistry and plant origin. Apidologie. 2000;31:3–15.
Kuropatnicki AK, Szliszka E, Krol W. Historical Aspects of Propolis Research in Modern Times. Evidence-based Complementary and Alternative Medicine : eCAM. 2013;2013:964149. doi:10.1155/2013/964149