What is propolis and what are benefits of using it?

27.05.2019. 14:00

We all know a fantastic gift from our honey bees - honey. Since ancient times honey has been recognized as a healing agent and as an excellent source of nutrients. Today it is a welcomed sweetener and food item in every household.

Many people prefer honey over table sugar because of its nutritional value. However, honey is not the only gift from honey bees to us. Propolis is another widely used substance made by our beloved honey bees.

You have probably heard about it, but did you know that propolis might have some health benefits? Honey is widely recognized for its health benefits and propolis, even though less known, offers a health punch on its own. With alternative medicine getting more recognition, natural options like honey and propolis are great news for anyone going natural.

We believe that propolis can be beneficial for many people, which motivated us to share all the amazing stuff that propolis can bring us. There are lots of good things about propolis, so let's jump into it.

What is propolis?

Propolis, commonly also known as bee glue, is a resinous mixture made by honey bees. They mix beeswax and saliva with various substances collected from plants, exudates, and buds. Propolis is made in order to be used as a glue or sealant in the construction and repair of the hives.

Waxy nature of propolis makes it an excellent material for sealing cracks and openings, smoothing out the inside walls of the hive, and as a protection layer against wind and rain. Sometimes it is also used to contain potential pathogens brought in by hive intruders, such as mice. Bees kill the intruder, but its decomposing carcass could bring a lot of pathogens into the hive.

A bee solution is using propolis to mummify the carcass. This prevents its decay from affecting the hive environment.

Even the name itself describes how awesome propolis is in the bee world. The word propolis comes from Greek where pro stands for “at the entrance to” and polis stands for “city” or  “community”. Considering how bees use propolis, a translation can mean “before the city” or “in defense of the city”. This describes propolis perfectly as it is indeed used as a hive defense.

Propolis throughout history

As with honey, people have found propolis useful since ancient times. Egyptians used propolis for embalming their cadavers for the same reason that bees sometimes use it - keeps pathogens contained. Inkas used it to reduce fever. Roman and Greek physicians used propolis as an antiseptic, mouth disinfectant, and as a topical therapy for wound healing.

It proved to be useful even during the Second World War where it was used in tuberculosis treatment. People who used propolis noticed a decline of lung problems and appetite recovery. Propolis was often used in medicine, but it was also used as a violin varnish by Stradivari.

All these good things made scientists wonder about what properties made propolis so effective. As a result, recent years have had a significant amount of research on the biological activity of propolis. Research has confirmed what ancient civilizations already knew. It has been demonstrated that propolis has anti-fungal, antiviral, anti-bacterial, and anti-inflammatory properties.

Moreover, it can protect the liver, heal problems of the mouth, and to increase the body’s natural immune response. We will touch up on some of the uses of propolis and explain them in more details.

How bees make propolis?

You often hear that bees collect propolis, but that is not true. Bees collect ingredients which they later use for making propolis. The main component of propolis is plant resin obtained from the bark of conifers (spruces, pines, and other pine trees), leaf buds of trees (such as ash, oak, plum), and twigs.

Trees produce resin to protect itself from fungi and insects. Resin can be found in a wide range of colors, from whitish grey or tan to a variety of browns, reds, or black. They are produced in specialized cells and saved until needed.

When a tree is damaged, resin oozes out of the cells forms a bandage-like protective layer over the injury which keeps out fungi and bacteria. A valuable property or resins is that they are water soluble and harden when exposed to air.

Like we mentioned before, propolis production starts with collecting ingredients - especially resin. The task of collecting resin is essential and there are worker bees whose sole purpose is to collect resin. Gathering resources is what many worker bees do every day, so that cannot be too hard, right?

Well, the resin is a bit different than nectar and pollen. Because of its specific texture and properties, bees can only collect it on warm days. We mentioned that resin gets harder when exposed to air, which can make the collection tricky. To make things easier, bees wait for warm weather which softens the resin a bit. When the weather is right, honey bees use dance language to signal the location of resources so other bees can go collect them.  

In order to take resin to the hive, honey bees have to bite off a chunk of it and soften it by adding saliva and chewing. Softened resin is stored in pollen baskets, but the process of storing it is a bit different than storing pollen.

When a bee wants to put pollen in her pollen baskets, pollen is transferred from forelegs to the mid legs, the hind legs, and finally to the baskets. While pollen is transferred to the baskets it travels side to side, which happens as the bee brushes pollen from one collection spot to another.

Storing resin doesn’t involve side to side transfer; it stays on one side of the body and goes straight back. This can be explained by resin being sticky, so bees want to avoid transferring stickiness all over them.

When bees return to the hive, it’s time to unload resin from their pollen baskets. Unlike pollen, bees cannot unload resin themselves. They need the help of other bees within the colony because of resin stickiness.

The next step is mixing resins with honey, wax, and enzymes from their stomachs. After some mixing, bees get the substance which we know as propolis.

Its composition is usually 40 - 50% resins, 25 - 30% waxes, 10% essential oils and aromatic compounds (such as vanillin which gives propolis smell), 5% plant debris, and 5% pollen. The composition can vary between hives depending on the variety of resins collected.

According to research, there are specific conditions which stimulate the production of propolis within the hive. These conditions include cracks and crevices within the hive smaller than 5/16th of an inch, disease infections, light and draft coming into the hive in unwanted places, and rough surfaces within the hive.

In order to use propolis in human-made products, it first has to be extracted from the hive. There are several methods to do it, so continue reading to learn which technique you could use to extract propolis from your hives.

Propolis extraction

Some beekeeping supply companies take advantage of propolis stimulating conditions by offering traps which can be used to collect propolis. It consists of a thin plastic sheet with tiny narrow slits which replaces the inner cover of the hive. With time bees fill the slits in the plastic when the outer cover is flat on the hive.

If you want to encourage your bees to plug up the holes faster, you can prop up the outer cover to allow light and wind to pass through the top of the hive.

After honey bees have filled the slits, you can take out the trap, put it in a bag, and then place it in the freezer for a few hours. When you take out the trap from the freezer, bang it against a hard surface or bend it back and forth. This will break the brittle propolis, and it will fall in the bag.

Another method of extracting propolis is catching the hive scrapings when you are cleaning the honey supers during honey harvest. Scrapings also contain some contaminants (such as wood, dead bees, wax, etc.) which have to be removed.

One way to remove most of the contaminants is to soak the scrapings in a container with water. Contaminants tend to float, while propolis tends to sink so it's an easy solution. Another way to clean the hive scrapings is placing the scrapings into an oven-proof container. This method involves covering the scrapings with 2 - 3 inches of water and placing them in the oven at 200°F.

The scrapings should be baked for at least two hours and stirred often to release any contaminants trapped within propolis mass. As with the first method, contaminants float at the top of the water while propolis sinks to the bottom of the container. After baking the container is removed from the oven and left to cool. The wax leaves a waxy layer on the water surface, but it can be removed.

When you pour out the water, you will be left with clean propolis which you can freeze to break it into pieces. Before storing the propolis, you need to dry it by spreading it out on the sheet of cardboard or paper.

Commercially available propolis forms

Extracted propolis which has been cleaned doesn’t need any more processing and can be used raw. However, this is the simplest way to use it and there are other more commercially available forms of propolis.

1. Hydrolized propolis

Hydrolized propolis is obtained by soaking propolis in water or boiling it in water. This form of propolis is great for people who want to avoid alcohol. But, boiling propolis in water makes it less potent because of loss of some aromatic compounds. The yield of medicinal and active ingredients is usually lower than propolis processed with alcohol.

However, this form still has powerful fungicidal and bacterial effects. Since water mixture is a great place for mold to form, water extract of propolis should be refrigerated to suppress the growth of mold.

2. Tinctures or extracts

Preparing propolis extracts or tinctures is easy and requires a minimal time investment. Moreover, you only need two ingredients: propolis and an appropriate solvent.  

The first step in this process is choosing the solvent. This is especially important if the product will be used for human consumption. The highest quality of this extract can be achieved by using ethanol as a solvent. But, you can choose any food grade alcohol which is at least 65% alcohol.

Another ingredient, propolis, has to be ground into a powder which enables the solvent to work on a bigger surface area of the propolis. However, if you are using ethanol as a solvent, then even larger chunks of propolis will dissolve so you can even avoid grinding it up.

Put both ingredients in a sealed water-tight container and shake briefly once or twice a day. Best results can be achieved when the propolis is soaking in solvent for one to two weeks. When the time is up, your extract is ready for filtration. Filtration can be done by using a paper filter, cotton ball, or very fine cloth.

After first filtration you can soak the remains in alcohol for additional extract, but it will probably be less potent than the original extract. When the process is done, you will be left with a dark brown or reddish clear liquid which is free of particles. The extract should be stored in clean, dark, airtight bottles.

The potency of the extract can be changed by modifying propolis and solvent content. If you want higher potency, you can add more propolis and less solvent. Also, you can ditch the filtering. Fine particles, which would otherwise be filtered out, are left to collect in the bottom of the soaking container. Moreover, you can put a porous cover (such as cheesecloth) over the container with final propolis tincture to let some of the solvent evaporate. Doing this will increase the percentage of propolis content.

If you planned on using denaturated, methyl or rubbing alcohol, you should know something. Such alcohol should never be used in products intended for internal human consumption. They contain toxins which make them unpalatable to humans and prevent digestion. However, tinctures with such alcohol are still useful. Some beekeepers apply it to their equipment.

But, even this usage can be dangerous because some denaturated alcohols contain chemicals poisonous to bees. Just to be safe, on the inner surfaces of your hives use only extracts appropriate for human consumption.

3. Capsule or tablet (powder form)

This form of propolis requires grinding it up into powder form, and we want to avoid having contaminants in that mixture. You can clean it with water as we explained before. Since warm propolis is sticky and waxy, it would be hard to ground it into powder form. The approach to take is to freeze propolis for a few hours. Also, freeze hand grinder or mortar and pestle which you will use to ground up propolis.

By freezing the equipment that you will use, you can keep propolis cold for longer. You should also ground up propolis as soon as you remove it from the freezer. Since you want to keep propolis brittle for as long possible, hand grinder is a better choice than an electric grinder. Electric grinder might heat up fast when in use, which will affect propolis you are trying to ground up. The heat will make propolis sticky so it will gum up the grinder.

Depending on the company, powdered propolis may be compacted into tablets or put in capsules. Smaller companies usually purchase capsules and fill them with propolis powder. One of the uses of powdered propolis is the production of tasty medicine by mixing propolis with honey.

If mixed with honey, you should be careful about which kind of honey you pick. Propolis tends to float to the top of liquid honey, but you want to keep propolis suspended in and throughout the honey. To combat this issue, use honey which is in the process of crystallizing or is naturally crystallized.

4. Oil extract

The oil extract of propolis can be made by heating up propolis and oil in a pot. You can use any food grade oil, such as olive oil, coconut oil, sunflower oil, etc. Propolis and oil are heated for about 10 minutes, with constant stirring.

The oil extract can be filtered and stored in a sealed container. It’s best to choose some dark place to store it, such as a kitchen or medicine cabinet.

6 health benefits of propolis

Today, propolis is a widely used remedy, and its range of uses is long and varied in body care products and home remedies. It is used either in its raw form or in one of the forms we mentioned before. Propolis has many benefits, but we will touch upon the most important benefits. Firstly, what components of propolis make it healthy?

Propolis contains around 150 active ingredients and some of them are:

  • Phenolic acids: Cinnamon acid, caffeic acid, ferulic acid, etc.

  • Vitamins: Provitamin A (known as “Anti-Aging”), B vitamins (especially B5)

  • Flavonoids: Galangin, chrysin, etc. Flavonoids are natural antiseptics which are produced by plants to protect them against solar radiation and to be a natural defense against fungi, bacteria, and mold.

  • Minerals: Copper, silver, cobalt, iron, zinc, magnesium, etc.

Now that we have learned some of the compounds that make propolis so special, it is time to jump into how propolis can be beneficial for your health.

# Boosts immune system and treats common cold

Recent studies have shown that propolis can reduce the symptoms of a cold. A study from 1989 found that the health of people suffering from acute cold symptoms started to improve since they started treatment with propolis.

Five patients made a complete recovery the following day, while sixteen recovered on the second day. On the other hand, the placebo group on average needed almost five days to recover completely. As you can see, the group receiving propolis therapy recovered 2.5 times faster than the other group. Flavonoids in propolis can stimulate the production of antibodies and increase their count in blood from 32% to 36%!

A study from 1995 followed school children during cold/flu season and found that the use of propolis lowered the number of cases with acute or chronic symptoms.

Immune boosting properties of propolis can also be seen in a beehive. Bees rely on it to work as an extension of their immune system. Knowing this, it is not surprising that mapping of the honey bee genome showed that bees have fewer genes dedicated to immune response than any other insect.

Such a honey bee genome is just a result of evolution. Utilization of propolis by the colony removed the need for the development of a more robust immune system within each bee. Since propolis is so crucial for keeping the bees healthy, try not to take too much propolis when you are collecting it from your bees.

# Promotes healing of wounds and burns

Putting pollen as a topical ointment speeds up healing, which is especially useful for healing burns. Kaempferol in pollen inhibits the activity of enzymes after a burn and decreases swelling and inflammatory reaction. The way the pollen works is that it moistens the skin and improves blood circulation in the vessels. Some components of pollen (flavonoids) have analgesic and anti-inflammatory effect, so pollen also relieves pain. Moreover, the antimicrobial activity of pollen prevents infection.

# Helps with skin issues

We already mentioned the healing properties of propolis when applied to wounds and burns, but it can help our skin even more. We will focus on dealing with cold sores, warts, eczema, and psoriasis.

Herpes simplex virus (HSV) is common, and its type HSV-1 causes cold sores of the lips. Studies have shown that propolis reduced the duration and pain of cold sores. When used in combination with conventional medical treatments, it made them more effective.

Researchers tested the effectiveness of propolis against warts, and the results were amazing. In 75% of patients with the plane and common warts, propolis managed to stop warts completely. It was even more effective than echinacea treatment.

When dealing with skin conditions such as psoriasis and eczema, the anti-inflammatory effect of propolis is beneficial for bringing relief.

# Helps combat cancer

According to many studies focusing on propolis and cancer treatment, it seems that propolis has anti-cancer and anti-tumor properties. Two polyphenols in propolis, caffeic acid phenethyl and artepillin C, are the most potent agents. This has been tested and proved to be true on animals and human cell cultures. Scientists believe that it inhibits DNA synthesis in tumor cells, which prevents cancer from developing. Also, propolis has the ability to induce cell death of tumor cells.

In 2016 there was a study which evaluated the effect of propolis extracts from the northern region of Thailand on cancer growth. Extracts used in a study showed high antioxidant activity, and it concluded that propolis can be considered extremely useful in cancer treatment.

# Effective against Candida

Candida is an infection caused by Candida Albicans, which is a yeast-like fungus. This is the most common yeast infection found in the mouth, vagina, intestinal tract, and any other mucous membrane. It can even affect the skin. With an optimally functioning immune system this infection is usually not serious. But if there are issues with the immune system, then it can spread to other parts of the body.

Unfortunately, Candida can even spread to membranes around the brain or heart, and to the blood.

When it is present in proper levels in the body, Candida helps with nutrient absorption. However, when the body’s pH is out of balance then candida can grow out of control and create a systematic problem.

A study published in the journal Phytotherapy Research found that propolis inhibits candida in patients with candida and denture-related inflammation. A study from 2011 found that propolis is a bee product with the highest antifungal activity, higher than in royal jelly, pollen, and honey.

# Increases fertility in women with endometriosis

A research found that women who have endometriosis and took propolis twice a day, for six months, had a pregnancy rate of 60% compared to 20% in the placebo group. Infertile women without endometriosis could also benefit from treatment with propolis, but studies have yet to show if propolis is effective in that situation.

How to use propolis?

We already mentioned different forms of propolis which you can either make yourself or purchase at any health food store. Propolis forms intended for internal use are powder, tablet, capsule, and liquid extract.

If you have a sore throat, propolis in a spray is great for that. The recommended dose of propolis intended for internal use is 500 milligrams once or twice a day. For external use, you can get propolis cream or ointment and follow the label instructions to know how much to use.

Propolis precaution

Propolis is a natural medicine, and you should treat it as such. As with any medication, you need to be careful about the dosage and if it is safe to use.

One of the concerns is an allergy to pollen, honey, royal jelly, conifer or poplar trees. If you are allergic to any of these, then it would be best to avoid propolis unless an allergy specialist has given you the green light.

Another concern is that propolis may increase the risk of bleeding in people with bleeding disorders or people who take blood thinners. Propolis may slow down clotting. Since it affects your blood, it would be best to stop taking propolis at least two weeks before any surgery.

Pregnant or breastfeeding women have to be extra careful, so a consultation with the doctor is needed.

Moreover, some experts recommend staying away from propolis if you have asthma because some chemicals in it might make asthma worse. There have been some cases of propolis having a positive effect on people with asthma, but it is best to consult with your doctor about it.

Bee products are nature’s greatest gifts!

It seems that whatever our friends honey bees make is wonderful, and propolis is no exception. Bee products have been valuable even throughout history, but modern science added something new. It shed some light on why they are effective.

Now we have proof of what has been known for centuries. We mentioned a few benefits of using propolis, which is just a small part of numerous health benefits. Its potency of health benefits can be compared to honey, so their combination could be quite a powerful health bomb.

Isn’t it amazing how bees produce so many things with health benefits? They give us so much, but they need our help. In recent years their numbers have been dropping, and scientists are not sure what is the reason.

One possible candidate is widespread use of pesticides toxic to bees (neonicotinoids), so a great effort has been put into trying to reduce their use. European Union has even banned them. These efforts are essential not only for the bees but for the whole environment and for every living being. Besides giving us healthy products, bees also play a big part in pollination.

Without pollination, many plants, including food crops, would die off. Honey bees helped to keep us healthy for centuries, so don’t you think we should do everything we can to help them when they are in need? We do, and that is the main reason why we want to share with you all the amazing things about bees. You can help the bees also, join us in letting everyone know that you support bees!