Can Bee Propolis Be Sustainable?

Reader Contribution by Dawn Combs
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It is often hard to explain to new customers why we do not have some of the typical beekeeper products on our farmer’s market tables. Our farm, Mockingbird Meadows, has 35 hives as of this writing and they sit prominently above our farm pond. That is surely enough hives that we have plenty of pollen, honey, propolis, comb and royal jelly to go around.

Not Your Typical Beekeepers

We raise our bees sustainably. To us this means that we focus our practices on the health of the bees, above all else. We want our bees to be self-sustaining and healthy without heroic intervention from us. Our strict practices carry the theme that the bee knows how to do “bee” business better than we do. We stay out of her way, provide an environment in which she can be successful and remove all stressors that we can control.

To this end, there are some bee products we simply will never carry on our farm in any significant quantity. Propolis is a product I see gaining momentum in natural health circles. While I do not refute the research that propolis is healthy for humans, I disagree with “farming” it per se.

All-Natural Antibacterial For Whom?

Propolis is a compound that the bees make, combining the resin on leaf buds, bark, and flowers with their own mix of enzymes. The resulting product is often called “bee glue.” If you are a beekeeper, you have encountered the changeability of propolis. It is the texture of chewing gum, stretching to impossible lengths, in the summer when you pry off an inner cover. It is the texture of cement, requiring a chisel maneuver to crack and break, in the middle of a cold snap. Very simply, the bee uses this compound as one would use mortar between stones or bricks in a building. It strengthens their hive structure and stops the wind and light from entering the inside of their home.

We humans are capable of seeing that propolis has antibacterial, antiviral and anti-fungal properties in relation to its healing effect in our bodies. We all too often overlook the fact that it is used in exactly the same way by the creature that made it in the first place.

Yes, the bee uses propolis to protect herself from the elements. She does this to protect her colony from being weakened by invading predators, bacteria and weather. It is an integral part of the immune system of the hive. When it is winter we rely on insulation in our home, and hats and gloves, to keep our bodies strong enough to repel foreign invaders in much the same way.

The bee also uses propolis to stiffen cell walls. She lines the cells in the nursery before the queen deposits an egg. The healing nature of this substance protects the growing larvae and the newly emerged bee at a time when their own immune system has not yet developed.

The Hive as an Individual

If we imagine that the entire colony is an individual body. Then propolis is a integral part of that body’s immune system. A beekeeper who wishes to harvest propolis commercially will place a plastic, metal or cloth screen across the top of the hive and prop the lid open to allow light and air into the colony. This stimulates the bees (let’s imagine they are white blood cells in the human body) to furiously work to patch the hole in the system. They must fly many miles, and sacrifice much bee life, to collect enough propolis to then seal off the threat. This of course, is a stress on the colony alone, but there is another danger to consider.

Propolis can be collected throughout the season, but the big “flow” is in late fall. This is the time when the bees naturally prepare for winter. They spend time fortifying their hive while the trees are still warm enough to produce the valuable resins that are needed.

Imagine you are preparing your house for winter. You fill your attic with the required insulation. A large windstorm comes along and removes the attic, leaving you exposed to the elements. Unfortunately, the stores are out of insulation for the year. You huddle in the lower floors to stay warm, but heat rises and is constantly wicked from your home through the space where you roof used to be. You and your family are now more likely to fall prey to illness as you are weakened by constant cold. You may not survive the winter, regardless of what you have in the pantry to eat or how tightly you huddle together.

Propolis screens are often removed after winter has set in. A beekeeper who does this is effectively removing the attic and all the insulation, even if they replace the screen with a solid inner cover. The result in the colony is the same as it would be in your home.

Propolis For All

I do not believe that we must abstain from using hive products in order to protect the bees. We make our living partnering with the bees who live on our farm. If you would like to use propolis in your home, the best way is to start a relationship with your own bees. There is always excess propolis that you can collect as you go about taking care of the hives in the spring and summer. A small amount, even just a cup’s worth, will last a typical family of four for the year. If you don’t have a hive, buy from someone who has a limited quantity of propolis each year. Ask questions, they are most likely selling excess rather than forcing the bees to make it especially for their use. If you find a beekeeper like this, get on their list- this amazing product will always sell out fast!

Photo by Carson Combs

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