Propolis: The Honey Bee’s Health Prophylactic


Everybody calls propolis “bee glue”.
Everyone knows how hard it can be to pry those beehive supers apart that the bees have glued together with propolis.
Some say propolis is a very strong hive component that keeps the bees healthy and strong.

I decided to educate myself in more depth regarding propolis and honey bee health, and this is what I found:

Will Encouraging Propolis Production Be Healthy For My Beehive?

Propolis production encouragement is healthy for the beehive because propolis is an:
1. Antiseptic.
2. Antifungal.
3. Antibacterial.
4. Anti-invader deterrent.
Propolis is protecting the brood from pathogens, much like a nursery in a hospital. Not sterile but close.

Antiseptic Aspect

In the feral beehive, living in a dead tree in the woods somewhere, the hollow in the tree will not have smooth walls. The old dead tree’s hollow cavity will have cracks throughout the interior of the tree hollow formed by the shrinkage of the wood as it loses all its water content and drys out.

Honey bees prefer no cracks in their hive. So, living in a hollow in a dead tree, they get to work filling all those cracks with propolis and smoothing out the walls.

The whole purpose of bees living in a hive together as a colony is all about species survival.

The whole purpose of sealing cracks with propolis is all about rearing healthy, strong brood to become the replacement workforce of the hive, thereby ensuring hive survival.

Whether the bees are aware that what they are doing is brood protection through semi-sterilizing the bee nursery is not known. It may simply be an instinctual DNA response as so many things that direct the activities of a honey bee seem to be.

Anti-fungal Aspect

Propolis, smeared all over the walls of a hollow in a dead tree, contains antifungal properties that keep fungus from growing within the bee colony.

The interior of the beehive, regardless of dead tree hollow cavity or a commercial beehive, is kept at about 50% humidity level by the bees. This is the humidity levels are an ideal brood rearing humidity.

Honey will need to be dehydrated to less than 20% water, so the 50% humidity level optimization is certainly not to make honey, it is to raise baby bees.

Remember, the interior of the beehive is SEALED with propolis so the interior of the hive is pitch black. What likes humidity and darkness? FUNGUS!

This antifungal property also protects hive adult bees from dysentery.
While most beekeepers will state, with little objective data, that dysentery is primarily caused by nosema fungus, recent research has confirmed no nosema fungi in a hive with dysentery, but rather a yeast fungus that was causing dysentery.

Word to the wise, be sure the fungi that are causing the dysentery be identified. The two different fungi respond to different chemical interventions by the beekeeper. The treatments can run into the thousands of dollars for commercial beekeepers and the beekeeper can spend a lot of money without any results if the wrong intervention is applied.

Anti-bacterial Aspect

Bacteria love pollen.
Pollen is the essential component of a hive rearing more bees.

The first action taken by hive bees when pollen arrives at the hive is to start processing the pollen to kill off all the bacteria in the pollen.

Since pollen comes into the hive as a solid, unlike the liquid nectar also gathered by the foraging bee, some particles are dropped inside the hive during transport to its final destination in a pollen cell. The propolis helps prevent the bacteria of that dropped pollen from becoming a problem for the hive.

Anti-Invader Deterrent

The most obvious use the bees make of propolis is to seal all the cracks in a beehive to control the bees coming into and out of the hive by forcing the bees to enter the hive in one or two designated areas of entry.

During the dearths, bees from other, stronger hives may attempt to steal the honey from a weaker hive. That honey is the lifeline of food to get the hive through the upcoming winter. Without the honey reserves, the hive will starve to death over the winter.
Learn more about dearths…..

Some beekeepers claim a beehive NEVER freezes to death, they starve to death, then freeze.

Sealing all entrances with propolis, except the designated entrances, allows the guard bees to more effectively protect the hive by repelling the robber bees.
Learn more about Robber Bees…..

Sealing the hive cracks with propolis also keeps out other critters looking for warmth or food.

When another kind of critter does gain access to the hive, the bees kill the invader and the undertaker bees drag the dead invader’s body out of the hive and throws it on the ground away from the hive, dragging it if the critter is too big to carry while flying.

Sometimes, a critter to big to even be dragged out of the hive will gain entry to the hive and be killed by the hive bees, such as a lizard.

If the dead lizard is allowed to rot in the hive, it will set up a process of putrefaction which is fertile ground for all the things the hive has been working to protect the brood from. To prevent this from happening, the hive bees will encase the dead lizard’s body completely in propolis, much like a mummy wrap. And in fact, the dead lizard’s body does mummify!

What Is Propolis?

  • Propolis is the bee-chewed product of wax, saliva, and gathered oils and resins from conifers (trees that bear cones) and flowering resinous plants located within a couple of miles the beehive.
  • Propolis composition is different in every beehive, depending on the local resin-producing vegetation.

Propolis found in a specific hive is the end-product of whatever trees’ and plants’ resins are available to the foraging honey bees to gather.

While the resin of different trees and plants are going to produce different propolis end-products, the basic end-product chemical makeup is always very similar.

RESIN:

Resin makes up about 50% of the propolis end product, so it is easy to see why propolis is different hive-to-hive.

WAX:

Wax is the second most abundant component coming in at about 30% of the propolis end-product. Wax is produced from specialized glands on the abdomen of worker bees between the ages of 12 to 18 days old. After 18 days the wax glands “dry up” and that worker bee will transition to a foraging bee. Now her contribution to propolis production is in the form of resins, pollens, oils and other gathered raw materials needed to produce the propolis.

ESSENTIAL OILS:

Essential Oils are about 10% of this propolis end product. Essential oils is a very old term coined back when medicine believed all illnesses were an imbalance of water, fire, air, and earth. But then they discovered an element that did not fit the premise of the time. That element was any plant produced liquid that would not mix with water.

There was an agreement to identify these water-insoluble compounds as “essential oils” even though they are not oils at all. Essential oils are what are commonly known as tree sap (in the instance where the “essential oil” was collected from a tree).

POLLEN:

Pollen contributes about 5% of the raw materials gathered to produce propolis. Once again, this variable will slightly change the end-product (propolis) making it unique to each individual beehive. No two beehives will have gathered identical amounts of specific pollen in their foraging trips.

The other 5% of propolis is made up of numerous various materials, much of which contains minerals, vitamins and many other compounds that are natural pesticides.

How Do I Encourage Propolis Production In My Beehive?

  • Using a hive tool, scratch many marks in the inside walls of the hive.
  • Any scratch less than a ¼ inch deep will be filled with propolis.
  • Use rough-sawn wood for the interior of the hive. The bees will coat all the walls with propolis.

Propolis production is dependent on the number of “cracks” the honeybees decide that need to be filled with propolis.

Any “crack” (or scratch) that is a quarter inch or less will get the propolis treatment from the bees. Cracks larger than a ¼ inch will usually be filled with wax instead of propolis.

How do Honey Bees Make Propolis?

  • Foraging bees collect the resin from trees and plants and return it to the hive.
  • A hive bee, between 8 and 21 days old, receives the resin.
  • The hive bee chews the resin, mixing it with salvia and wax from its wax gland until it is of the consistency of the desired propolis.

Where Do Honeybees Get Resin To Make Propolis?

  • The foraging bee collects the resin from conifers, trees that bear cones.
  • Foraging bees also collect the resin of flowering resinous plants.
  • Resin is the specific reaction of these trees and plants to heal an injury they have sustained by sealing the wound with resin.

Conifers, Trees That Bear Cones

Conifers are usually evergreen and considered softwood.

According to the USDA Forest Service, trees that produce resin are:

  • Cedar
  • Fir
  • Juniper
  • Pine
  • Redwood
  • Spruce
  • Yew
  • Larch

Pine trees are the most common tree for bees to access for their resin. The main reason for pines to be the most common is because of their wide distribution in the northern hemisphere. The are proliferous in North America, China, South-East Asia, Russia, and Europe.

The Bristlecone Pine is the oldest known non-clonal organism on earth. Non-clonal simply means the trunk of the tree is as old as the root-ball of the tree; not a root-ball with a sucker developed later.

The most ancient, until recently, was the so-named “Methuselah”, located somewhere in the White Mountains of California. Its exact location is kept secret for fear of being damaged by the public.

Methuselah is said to be 4,848 years old, but recently, another Bristlecone Pine has been identified as being over 5,000 years old.

Cedar trees are native to the Himalayas and the land mass around the Mediterranean but have been introduced by humans around the globe in areas with a moderate climate.

Fir trees are found in North and Central Americas, Europe, Asia, and North Africa. They love the mountain ranges and are closely related to the Cedar trees.

Juniper trees are another mountain-loving tree found in North America, Europe, and Southwest Asia.

Redwood trees have shrunk from there almost world-wide distribution down to the northern coastline of California and a small grouping in a remote China valley.

Spruce trees prefer a climate with a much broader temperature range than some of the other trees. They don’t like mild or tropical climates, they prefer the colder climates in the northern hemisphere around the globe.

Yew trees are native to Europe, northwest Africa, northern Iran, and southwest Asia.

Larch trees are another cold climate loving tree found in North America, northern Europe, and Asia.

Flowering Resinous Plants

According to the USDA Forest Service, flowering resinous plants are mayapple, sweetgum, creosote bush, aspen, willow, birch, alder, poison oak, poison ivy, buckeye, gardenia, quinine, coffee, morning glory, parsley, dill, fennel, caraway, sarsaparilla, ginseng, rabbitbrush, balsamroot, sunflower, and tarweed.

Why Do Conifers and Flowering Resinous Plants Produce Resin?

Conifers (cone-bearing trees) and flowering resinous plants produce resin as a prophylactic antiseptic, antifungal, antibiotic sealant to close a wound the plant has suffered.
This viscous bandage protects it from opportunistic bacteria and fungi.

Final Thoughts

  • Propolis is not a consistently constructed compound.
  • It depends in large part where the beehive is located in the world as to what the final specific metrics are of that locally produced propolis.
  • Regardless of the exact final composition of the propolis, any hive that has an abundance of propolis within the hive is healthier and stronger because of its presence.

Happy Beekeeping

Paying It Forward

Related Topics

What Are Some Commercial Uses Of Propolis?

  • Propolis is used by medical professionals as a topical ointment, tincture, or a systemic remedy through ingestion.
  • A dietary supplement or topical cream.
  • Manufacturing of some chewing gums.
  • Making varnishes, Stradivari’s violin varnish used propolis.
  • Manufacturing car wax.

How Much Money Can I Make Selling Propolis From One Beehive?

  • Between $17 and $420 per week.
  • One hive, using a propolis trap, can produce 3 or more ounces per week.
  • Raw propolis, in bulk, sells to processors for $65 to $125 a pound.
  • Small quantities sold locally will bring $1 a gram ($448 a pound) to $5 a gram ($2,240 a pound).

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