Propolis, What Is It?
Propolis is a complex chemical package produced by bees. They use it in the hive for a variety of purposes but primarily to protect the hive against infection. The bee does not have an internal immune system and it must therefore create one externally. It does this by first collecting resin from trees and plants which it brings back to the hive. The bee then processes it by adding wax and by altering the chemical structure of the resinous raw materials to produce what becomes propolis.
Propolis is composed of resin (35-45%), wax (30-35%) and a wide range of vitamins, minerals, essential oils and most importantly bioflavonoids.
The beehive is a highly evolved and complex system. Up to 70,000 bees live in community together carrying out a bewildering variety of specialist tasks in perfect harmony and for the most part in perfect health. Interestingly the temperature inside the beehive is the same as our own body and in a sense we may look upon the beehive as a ‘body’ similar to our own, carrying out complex and dynamically related tasks; tasks, which it could not do, as we cannot do, without the mediating and regulating role of an immune system.
We have become used to defining modern medicines as products with very specific, targeted functions: antibiotic, anti-inflammatory, antifungal, antiviral and so on – yet a healthy immune system incorporates all these functions and more. All these functions flower, as it were, out of the single complex but unifying stem of our immune system.
Propolis: Nothing New as a Medicine
There is nothing new about the use of Propolis as a medicine. The earliest records show its use by the Egyptian priest-doctors.
The Greeks knew of and used Propolis as a medicine. Aristotle in his pioneering natural scientific study of the honeybee is believed to have first coined the term Propolis. It literally means Defender of the City. Aristotle observed how the bees used Propolis to physically protect the hive against intruders by blocking up holes and crevices.
Hippocrates, credited as the founder of modern medicine, referred to propolis as a remedy with the power to “heal sores and ulcers” both internal and external.
Pliny the great Roman natural scientist further developed our understanding by defining three types of propolis and their separate uses in the hive. He also tells us that: “current Physicians use propolis as a medicine because it extracts stings and all substances embedded in the flesh, softens indurations, soothes pain of the sinews and heals sores when it appears hopeless of them to mend.”
The great Arab doctors understood the benefits of propolis and other products from the hive, products which are today receiving increased attention as medicines. The Koran is unequivocal about the value of the honeybee. “From its belly comes forth a fluid of varying hues, which yieldeth medicine for men”.
It is likely that knowledge of the medicinal properties of propolis spread via Arab influence through Europe directly northwards up into Russia and Eastern Europe and through conquests eastwards through Spain.
But with the coming in the West of modern medicine and the great hope of synthetic drugs, propolis like many other natural remedies fell into disuse and like the sleeping beauty has lain asleep for a hundred years. Only in Russia and Eastern Europe did it continue to be used and scientifically investigated.
A Renaissance of Interest in the West
Beginning in the 1960’s there has been a renaissance of interest in the West. In the 70’s and 80’s from the UK, USA, Japan, France, Italy and Germany, came forth a trickle of scientific papers –which has become a flood over the last 20 years. Weightman and Garcia reporting in 1997 identified a list of some 350 scientific articles about propolis published between 1980 and 1995 “Interest in propolis is becoming more widespread and by professional, respected scientists capable of publishing in peer review journals”.
International scientific interest in Propolis continues to increase. Recently, a US university announced it has been awarded $1 million dollars to investigate the anti cancer properties of propolis. At Beevital’s Propolis Research Unit, based at the University of Strathclyde, we have been looking at the chemical, biological and clinical properties of propolis from sources around the world. The unit has published many reports of its work in peer review journals.
How does it work?
If a mouse or large insect enters the hive the bees will kill the intruder but they cannot remove it. Left alone corpse would become a major source of infection in the hive as a perfect breeding ground for bacteria. The bees deal with the problem by bringing to the site propolis they have previously processed and stored. They then embalm the dead intruder with propolis and finally coat the body with wax. This mummification process effectively seals in the potential source of bacterial infection. Beekeepers have found these mummified remains perfectly preserved many years later.
Scientific study of propolis has shown how propolis acts in very much the same way on a micro level as it does on a macro level. Bent Havsteen a researcher in Germany showed how the flavonoids in propolis sealed up the protein coating of bacteria and viruses preventing them from breaching and spreading into the surrounding cell structure. Just as the bees use propolis to seal up dangerous sources of infection in the hive so propolis seals up and prevents individual bacteria or viruses from become active within the organism.
Recent research at Tufts University in Massachusetts has illustrated the mechanism by which bacteria become most dangerous. This happens when they combine to form biofilm. Biofilm is created when bacteria join together in organised communities with communication, transport and waste disposal systems. Whilst bacteria remain lone agents they can be effectively controlled by our immune system. However once a critical mass is present something called a Quorum Sensor
signals to the surrounding bacteria that now would be a good time to get together and so biofilm is formed. The biofilm that is formed following operations for example is what provides the opportunity for MRSA to take hold. The researchers at Tufts showed how propolis stops the quorum sensors from signalling and so prevents the formation of dangerous forms of bacterial infection. This is another graphic illustration of how propolis works in the body, not by killing bacteria but by disabling them.
Folk History and Use of Propolis in Europe
Very few direct references to propolis are found in early British herbal literature. There are, however, numerous references to the anti-inﬂammatory properties of tree and plant resins, the basic raw materials harvested by the bee to produce propolis.
John Gerard in his famous Herball refers to ‘the rosin or clammie substance of the blacke Poplar buds.’ He tells us how the apothecaries used these substances to make ointments for treating a range of inﬂammatory conditions.
Nicholas Culpeper, in his Complete Herbal, also refers to the medicinal properties of poplar tree resin. ‘The clammy buds hereof, before they spread into leaves, are gathered to make Unguentum and Populneum . . . The ointment called Populneum, which is made of this Poplar, is singularly good for all heat and inﬂammation in any part of the body and tempers the heat of wounds.’
In Green’s Universal Herbal16 we ﬁnd further references to the use of the resin from two species of poplar trees. Under Populus nigra (Black Poplar Tree) Green tells us:
The young leaves are an excellent ingredient for poultices for hard and painful swellings. The buds of both this and the White Poplar smell very pleasantly and being pressed between the ﬁngers, yield balsamic resinous substances which, extracted by spirits of wine, smells like styrax. A drachm of this tincture in broth is administered in internal ulcers and excoriations and is said to have removed obstinate ﬂuxes proceeding from an excoriation of the intestine.
Under Populus balsamifera (Common Tacamahaca Poplar Tree) we hear:
‘The buds of this tree from autumn to the leaﬁng are covered with an abundance of glutinous yellow balsam, which often collects into drops, and is pressed from the tree as a medicine. It dissolves in the spirits of wine; and the inhabitants of Siberia prepare a medicated wine from the buds. This wine is diuretic and, as they think serviceable in the scurvy.’
Whilst very little appears to have been known about propolis in Britain and northern Europe it seems that in old southern and central Russia propolis was a familiar natural remedy. It is interesting to speculate whether this knowledge had always existed in these areas or whether it traveled north from Greece and the Arab countries.
In Georgia, where the Arab inﬂuence was strong, Sul-han-Saba (1658–1725) the complier of a Georgian encyclopedic dictionary deﬁned propolis as ‘a substance similar to wax from the bottom of the hive.’
In the Carabadini, a Georgian book of medicine published in the thirteenth century, the author suggests a treatment for dental decay. The recipe involves propolis mixed with arsenic, red lentil, yarrow, wood germander, to which is added one spoon of olive oil and one of honey. The mixture is then placed on the bad tooth. Propolis as we shall see later is now used extensively by modern dentists to treat a wide variety of periodontal problems.
Moving towards modern times another Georgian medical treatise, published in the 18th century, recommends the use of propolis for the treatment of haemoptysis. ‘One has to take propolis grains having the size of a pin’s head, for two days—three pieces, in the morning and in the afternoon.’
Traditionally, in Georgia, propolis cakes—small ﬂat pats of propolis—were used to treat a variety of conditions. For arthritis the cake was wrapped in a warm cloth and left on the inﬂamed or painful area all night. A similar treatment was recommended for treating skin abscesses, where it is claimed the propolis cake eliminated the pus very quickly. For treating corns a thin layer of propolis was placed on the corn and then bandaged into place. Parents of newborn children were also advised to place a propolis cake on the belly button of newborn children and to rub their children’s toys with propolis.
A. B. Nikolaev refers to a traditional Georgian treatment for respiratory tract infections where ﬁnely ground propolis is inhaled by the sufferer.
How is Propolis Used?
Due to its many properties such as anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial and immune-boosting, propolis is used in relation to various conditions, which include:
- Arthritis and muscular pain
- Respiratory problems
- Skin problems
- Chronic fatigue
- Stomach and digestive disorders
- Cuts and burns
- Immune Support
- Oral health
Propolis is also used for general well-being maintenance.
Propolis can be used both internally and externally.
It can be taken in different forms internally, such as in liquid, tincture, capsule or tablet form.
It can be applied externally usually in the form of a topical cream to the affected area.
At The Dispensary shop and our sister on-line shop The Futurehealth Store we are pleased to stock the BeeVital range of Bee Medicines and Sweet Cecily’s skincare which includes an amazing soothing skin cream containing propolis.
The Beevital and Sweet Cecily brands are part of Nature’s Laboratory and are based in Whitby, North Yorkshire, within a couple of miles of our own shop.
In this way we source our products from trusted local, high quality suppliers and reduce our carbon footprint, helping the environment and supporting local enterprises.
Thank you to James Fearnley, international expert on propolis and Dr Philip Wander for information on propolis provided for the above blog post.