Bee Harvests – Propolis

Propolis – Very Sticky Stuff

A bee brings back propolis on her hind legs Photo: Claire Waring

As well as collecting nectar, pollen and water from the environment, honeybees also collect propolis
The resinous substance collected by bees from some plants is called propolis or bee glue and is an essential part of bee life.

A bee brings back propolis on her hind legs

Propolis is the collected exudates of a variety of plants, particularly trees. These aromatic substances are a combination of resins and balsams with essential and aromatic oils

Organic Compounds

The resins give propolis flexibility and the ability to soften when heated while the balsams are aromatic. The sweet smelling essential and aromatic oils contain a variety of complex compounds including terpenes and flavonoids. Many of the substances in propolis have disinfectant properties and also act against bacteria, fungi and even viruses, so it is extremely valuable to the bee colony.

How Do Bees Collect Propolis ?

In the warm, lazy days of late summer, bees carry propolis back to the hive in the pollen baskets on their back legs. It is often possible to see a bee with these glistening, sticky drops of propolis. Collecting the propolis is quite difficult and bees occupied with this job have no time to do anything else. Once back in the hive, the collector bee is unable to dislodge the loads so they have to be bitten off by other bees. It is never stored but used immediately to keep the hive free of germs, to strengthen the honeycomb and block up any draughty cracks in the hive.

Human Uses

Humans have also found uses for propolis, particularly in medicine. In ancient times it was used for dressing wounds and this is being investigated again today. An enormous number of claims have been made for it including activity against tumours and respiratory infections. It is also claimed to reduce hair loss but I leave that to the imagination. We do know that it sometimes induces allergies, usually resulting in a type of dermatitis and beekeepers sometimes become allergic to propolis after many years of trouble free beekeeping. In ancient times it was used in embalming and it has been a constituent of varnishes.

This taster article was adapted from Sticky Stuff by Celia Davis, NDB originally published in Beecraft Dec 2005.

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