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Practical beekeeping - propolis

Propolis is the sticky 'glue' used by honey bees. Propolis is usually coloured dark brown, although it can be yellow, green, grey or red. Plants are literally rooted to the spot where they grow. This means that if threatened by an enemy, they cannot run away or hide. Plants therefore protect themselves with chemical defence systems. These include toxins, bitter tastes and stinging repellents. Tender buds would provide tasty snacks for insects unless defended, and often a plant protects its buds with sticky gums. When a tree is wounded it secretes resin around the wound as the first stage of the healing process. Humans derive great benefit from these powerful plant chemicals, and many medicines and drugs are derived from plants. Everyday substances include aspirin (from willow trees), caffeine (from coffee), menthol (from mint plants) and penicillin (from a fungus).

How do bees collect propolis?

The bee bites off scraps of plant resin with her mandibles and packs them into the corbiculae (pollen baskets) on her hind legs (see picture below). Each corbicula can carry about 10 mg of propolis. Because of its stickiness, propolis gathering is a slow business: it can take an hour to fill both baskets. Back at the hive, unloading can take another hour. Propolis is only collected when the temperature is above 18°C. Sometimes bees collect man-made materials and use these in the same way as 'real' propolis. For example bees will collect drying paints, road tar or varnish. Presumably to bees, these substances have a consistency and strong odour similar to plant resins.

A honey bee with propolis packed into the corbiculae (pollen baskets) on her hind legs
© BEES FOR DEVELOPMENT

Do all honey bees collect propolis?

No: Apis cerana is one honey bee species that does not use propolis. Different races of Apis mellifera use propolis to different extents: Apis mellifera caucasica is known for its high collection of propolis.

So what exactly is in propolis?

It is not possible to define propolis any more than it is possible to define honey - it all depends what is available to the bees. In general, propolis consists of resins, waxes, volatile oils and pollen, also vitamins, minerals and plant chemicals like flavonoids. The problem for people marketing propolis commercially is to obtain a standardised product.

Is propolis antibiotic?

Yes, it has been proved that propolis kills bacteria. There are many claims for the medicinal properties of propolis.

How do you harvest propolis?

To encourage bees to produce conveniently-sized propolis, place a perforated, plastic grid in the hive. This is a piece of plastic with small holes - not more than 6 mm. The bees will seal up the slots with propolis. Take out the grid and put it in a freezer. When cold enough, flexing the sheet will cause the propolis pieces to drop out. It might be possible to harvest 50 g per hive per season this way.

How much is propolis worth?

World price is currently around US$50 (€38) per kg (but this depends very much on the quality). Source: Bee Vital, January 2007

What do bees use propolis for?

⬥ Apis mellifera honey bees use propolis to keep their homes dry, cosy and hygienic. The propolis coating makes the walls of their nesting place waterproof and draught-proof. Propolis is used to seal up any cracks or gaps where micro-organisms could flourish. The volatile oils in propolis must serve as a kind of antiseptic air-freshener.

⬥ As a building material to decrease the size of nest entrances, and to make them smooth for passing bee traffic.

⬥ A thin layer is used to varnish inside brood cells before the queen lays eggs into them. Presumably this provides a strong, waterproof and hygienic unit for developing larvae.

⬥ To embalm bodies of mice or other predators too large for them to eject from the nest: these would otherwise decay and be a source of infection.

⬥ Apis florea, one of the Asian honey bee species, deters enemies by using rings of propolis (like grease bands) to coat the branch from which its single-comb nest is suspended.

PROPOLIS CLEANSING

Finighang Aaron Ndichia, Cameroon

No known herbalist has ever prepared a drug like propolis. Bees are the highest herbalists. Go to the side of a newly dug track and you find honey bees and bumble bees collecting sap coming out of cut roots. Sometimes you find bees visiting the buds of a plant which is not in flower and you wonder what the bees are taking from the plant. They may be collecting materials to prepare propolis. Sometimes you find bees on the wounded part of a tree bark collecting resin for propolis. I remember a day I went to consult a traditional doctor about my gastritis. My drug was prepared out of the barks, roots and very young branches of trees, and I was cured of my gastric pains. I observed my nephew cleaning his teeth against toothache with a red-brown liquid boiled out from the barks of trees. It had taken him weeks and the toothache was only subsiding. When I gave him propolis to chew against the tooth, he gave me an exciting report: the toothache stopped in a few hours.

To actually confirm that propolis works well against toothache, gastric and other illnesses, I sacrificed small pieces of propolis to those suffering from the above mentioned diseases in my training workshops. All the reports have been positive. For my twelve years of work with beekeepers and non-beekeepers, many have been treated for their ailments.

How to cleanse propolis

Much propolis is harvested from old broken log hives, hollow tree trunks and holes in the ground. Such propolis will be mixed up with wood, dead insects, beeswax, dust and pollen. To remove these unwanted elements, put crude propolis into a sizeable pot. Add water to cover all the lumps. Boil over a fire and stir to melt while the water is boiling. Remove the pot and allow to cool. When cooled, the debris will float on the water while the propolis sinks to the bottom of pot.

Decant the debris and water leaving the propolis in the pot. Put the propolis granules over a fine piece of cloth and allow the water to drip out. Dry the propolis in cold air: do not expose it to sunlight or it will turn back into lumps. Store the propolis granules in plastic or glass bottles in a cold place.

Finighang Aaron Ndichia is with ANCO (the Apiculture and Nature Conservation Organisation), Bamenda, North West Province. See BfDJ

80 ‘Apiculture and poverty alleviation in Cameroon’.

How to use propolis against diseases

Gastritis Put a tablespoonful of propolis granules in warm water. Shake well and allow to stand overnight. In the morning shake again and drink the water with the granules from a glass cup. Eat an equal amount of well filtered brown honey (use the glass cup as a measure). Do not eat any other food before or after. The honey will: 1) provide nutrition for the body; 2) treat ulcers and 3) enhance the effectiveness of the propolis. Drink the same quantity after lunch but do not eat any honey. The use of propolis like this will treat many stomach problems.

Haemorrhoids Put a quantity of propolis granules in the sun or near a fire source to become soft. Roll small balls between your clean palms to smooth the surfaces. Make the balls about the size of a cowpea grain. Swallow five balls with water before or after each meal.

Toothache Chew granules of propolis into gum-like paste, place the gum between the jaw and the painful tooth/teeth and hold in place. Replace when the gum becomes tasteless. When you use propolis for one disease it treats others - this will treat so many mouth problems.

Further reading on propolis and its uses can be found in the Bee Products category on our web store at www.beesfordevelopment.org/catalog

If you have good beekeeping advice or tips to share send your ideas to Bf D and we will endeavour to include the information in a future edition of the Journal. Our website Information Centre holds articles about all aspects of bees, beekeeping and development. If you have information that could be usefully added to these pages, or have other suggestions, tell us about it.

See www.beesfordevelopment.org