Historic Uses of Propolis
I can think only of perhaps a dozen or so substances which have been used consistently as natural healing products for centuries or more.
Ginseng, St. Johns Wort are the two obvious ones which spring to mind, but then of course there’s bee pollen, royal jelly, propolis and honey, from the beehive.
For a product to have such longevity there simply must be a real and tangible benefit to its use. Other products come and go as the latest health fad, but the historic uses of bee products have been shown throughout the ages, and it continues to be useful in the medicinal field today.
In some respects, bee products have risen in terms of their usefulness in recent years. These are extremely volatile substances, their collection from the beehive and subsequent processing needs to be conducted in a very specific and controlled way. Modern equipment, cooling processes and packaging processes allow certain manufacturers to get these products from the hive and into your medicine cupboards nutritionally intact.
So just how far back do these products go? Well, there’s evidence that bees have populated the planet for around 80 million years. Here’s a short article on the honeybee and its remarkable longevity. But evidence showing mans’ raising and harvesting efforts doesn’t stretch back quite that far, for obvious reasons! Clay beehives have been preserved which date back 10,000 years before the Minoan civilization, and other documented uses of bee products can be found spanning from that period right through to modern times.
In fact, it was Aristotle who first gave us the word ‘Propolis’, as a derivative of the term the ‘bees city’. Since propolis played such a key role in the preservation of the hive community, it became of great interest to apothecaries, scientists and even philosophers of the time.
So royal jelly, bee pollen, propolis and honey are by no means modern discoveries. Professor Bordas made claims to the natural health benefits of royal jelly in the 18th century and supported his claims with medical research and facts. In later times, scientists in Russia and throughout Europe became heavily involved in research into the benefits of propolis, both as a topical healing agent and a nutritional additive.
In 1907, Dr. Kustenmacher conducted research into the origins of propolis, which conflicted with opinions of the time, and still raises some controversy in modern times. The assertion has always been that propolis was a bi-product of tree and plant resins, collected by bees, digested and secreted as propolis, or ‘bee glue’. Kustenmacher however concluded that it is the resinous residue of the outer casing of bee pollens, and is created during a phase of digestion. Evidence suggests his observations to be in most part, quite factual. In regions where there are no trees and plants to produce resins, bee propolis is still produced in the hives, and where there is an increase in the production of bee pollen, there follows an increase in the production of bee propolis, linking the two very closely together. (information provided by “ Propolis – The External Natural Healer”, by Dr. Felix Murat).
The reality is that there exists within the beehive two types of propolis with two sources of origin. The type used for more medicinal purposes within the hive is that produced from the digestion of the bee pollens, whereas the type produced from the collection of plant resins, is used more for repairing and closing cracks in the hive walls. It too has antibacterial, viral, fungal properties, but evidently to a lesser extent than that which is derived from the pollen digestion.
Clearly, the use of propolis within the hive is critical to the survival of the bee population. When you consider that upwards of 50,000 bees can inhabit a single hive, sanitary considerations become significant. Furthermore, other creatures wander into the typical hive, adding to the range of bacteria present. Propolis serves the function of ‘locking down’ the hive into a safe and sanitary environment. It prevents the growth of bacteria, fungi, molds etc and ensures the bees can co-mingle without introducing diseases from outside the hive which could spread and obliterate the entire colony.
And so one can see its potential for use outside the hive. We’ve covered this potential in other articles, and here’s a link to an article exploring the benefits of propolis in more detail.
Lastly, it’s unfortunate that many USA beekeepers see the substance as something of an inconvenience. Because of its sticky and glue-like nature, many beekeepers refrain from collecting it and concentrate their efforts mostly on honey and beeswax. Because of this there’s insufficient propolis on the market to meet demands, as is the same with royal jelly. This inflates the price of the raw material and makes availability somewhat scarce. Added to this is the complexity of the extraction process – alcohol can be used to dissolve the propolis so that its active compounds can be separated from the debris and removed. But it’s a difficult process, unlike that involving honey and bee pollen, which is relatively straightforward.