Propolis: Bee Glue that Heals
Learning how to harvest the resin bees use to protect the hive might just keep that cold away
By Laura Tyler, Colorado
There are non-urgent tidbits of beekeeping lore that the experts won’t tell you when you are just getting started with bees. Not because they are secret. But because the amount of information available to new beekeepers is vast, and so much of it is need-to-know, that less pressing but still interesting details—like deciding what to do with that gob of propolis you have been adding to all summer—fall by the wayside. But as you are ready, your willingness to continue learning and trying new things can feel like an initiation drawing you deeper into the world of bees.
WHAT IS PROPOLIS?
Honeybee propolis is a brown or reddish resinous substance made by bees to protect the hive against animal and bacterial invaders. The word “propolis” is a compound of the Greek words “pro” and “polis” and translates to, “Before the city.” Bees use propolis as a building material to fill gaps and crevices, varnish combs and shape entrances, sometimes creating fantastic gobs that supposedly aid ventilation in the hive.
People have observed bees using propolis to corral insect pests like small hive beetles into tiny propolis “jails,” and to embalm dead mice. It has potent antiviral and antibacterial properties that aid in protecting the colony from infection. Made up of plant saps gathered by bees, redolent of beeswax, pollen, and essential oils, propolis has a warm and spicy aroma that suggests comfort and mystery. Its use as a folk medicine dates back thousands of years. Today people use it to treat ailments ranging from oral problems and fungal infections to allergies and sore throat.
The quantity of propolis a bee colony will produce depends on its nature and the conditions in the hive. Some colonies produce big, peanut buttery swaths of propolis that require diligent scraping on your part to move frames around. Others run a drier ship, highlighting the edges and ends of your equipment with a thin, almost delicate, reddish varnish.
Occasionally, when the right trigger is applied, bees will produce a terrific quantity of propolis, the size of a man’s fist or larger, in a single area, typically near the main entrance to the hive. I have seen this happen in my own colonies, usually when something has gone wrong. One time, the bottom edge of a frame came loose, touching the bottom board. The bees took this as an invitation to fill the space between the comb and bottom board with many square inches of potent, immaculate propolis. Another time, a piece of grass that fell into the colony near the entrance inspired a similar behavior. While these feats are exciting to witness, they are difficult to replicate or predict. When I see a colony has a propensity to make propolis, I will insert twigs along the bottom board near the entrance to inspire propolis creation with mixed and often disappointing results.
The simplest and most reliable method of harvesting propolis is to scrape it and save it in a designated bucket each time you work your hive. Look for the bigger, cleaner areas of propolis that collect along the top edges on each frame. Also, there are many fun looking styles and shapes of propolis traps available from beekeeping suppliers.
Beekeeping literature is full of negative information about propolis, how it gums up your equipment and requires continual scraping to maintain frames in moveable condition. Propolis is “unnecessary in modern apiculture, apparently useless to the bees and a disadvantage to the beekeeper,” according to the 34th edition of A.I. Root’s beekeeping classic, The ABC and XYZ of Bee Culture. Curiously, the book goes on to extoll propolis’ importance as, “the base of an important antiseptic preparation used by surgeons…highly recommended as a domestic remedy for wounds and burns.”
That is the nature of propolis. Challenging but important. And highly recommended to beekeepers seeking to expand their role as providers of bee products in their communities.
I swear by propolis as a preventative remedy when I am traveling or feeling run down. I have also found it useful in treating sore throat. I prefer to take propolis raw as opposed extracted in a tincture or blended in a salve. My favorite way to use propolis is the way I learned from a beekeeper friend in my second year of beekeeping:
Collect quality propolis, the rich looking, clean stuff free of bee parts and splinters, as you work your colonies throughout the year.
Store it loose in a sealable container, either a bucket or plastic bags at room temperature. You may also freeze it.
Choose a piece about the size of a pea, roll it into a ball and stick it on the back of a tooth, or the roof of your mouth. Hold it in your mouth for as long as you like, minutes or hours (after awhile it will break down) and then swallow or spit. Do not chew. Propolis has an intense yellow color that will temporarily stain your teeth and mouth. It also has a mild anesthetic quality. A mild tingling or numbness in the mouth is normal when using propolis.
Caution: some people are allergic to honeybee products including propolis. If you experience an allergic reaction, discontinue use and consult a physician.
RECIPE: 20% Propolis Tincture
1 part propolis by weight
4 parts food grade alcohol by weight, 150 proof (75%) or higher. Bacardi 151 or Everclear, depending on your taste.
Clean glass jar with a lid to fit the volume of tincture you are making.
Filter, either a coffee filter or clean piece of tightly woven cotton.
Storage container, jar or bottle with eyedropper
• Place propolis in jar
• Pour alcohol over propolis
• Cover jar with a tight-fitting lid and shake
• Shake jar one or more times per day for two weeks
• Strain solids from your tincture using a coffee filter or woven, cotton cloth
• Decant your finished tincture into storage container
• Label and store away from sunlight
This is a common formula published for centruies. For more information and more detail, we recommend: Bee Propolis: Natural Healing from the Hive by James Fearnley.
Laura Tyler is the director of Sister Bee, a documentary about the life of beekeepers, and lives in Boulder, Colorado, where she raises bees with her husband. If you have questions for her about raising bees, contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.