Pharmacology is the branch of medicine dealing with the actions of drugs in the body — their therapeutic and toxic effects. Our ancestors were the original pharmacologists; developing drugs from plant and animal sources. The word pharmacy originated from an Egyptian word, pharmaki, and the Greek, pharmakon. It is also related to the Egyptian word pharagia, which means “the art of making magic”. The ability of organisms to make medicine and to self-medicate play key roles in the development of pharmacology and in the making of magic.
Making magic with plants and flowers has its roots deeply entwined in the interspatial relationships over millennia with insects as pollinators. Pollinators procured the sweet and tangy nectars and the rich and robust pollens for their own nutrition and self-medication. In so doing, they have helped to fertilize flowering plants and thus, have served as midwives to blooms across the globe producing food and medicine for varied species for millennia.
The foraged food from flowers that bees collect is indeed magical in that it not only feeds them and their developing young directly, as well as other critters and humans, but also serves as medicine to their super-organismal health network. This ability to transform flower power into sweet elixirs and other potent hive products provides medicine for the one — and the many.
What is it that the bees have been eating and sharing with other organisms that lend to health? Bees visit numerous flower blooms and the mixtures through biological processes of chemistry and physiology keeps them healthy and provides healthy products which they share with humans as pharmaceutical (plant-derived) medicines. As super-organisms, honeybees have evolved as an efficient and productive species. More recently, they, along with other pollinators have been experiencing increasing challenges from climate fluctuations, habitat encroachment and industrial agricultural development.
Yet, there are pockets here and there around the globe, where the natural landscape and topography is helping to nurture stronger and healthier species, whose subsequent generations — like seeds, carry their genetic story to unfold over time while providing pollination for growing food, feeding life, and making medicine, magic, near and far. And, when bounties are plentiful, their products can be shared.
New Mexico’s Land of Enchantment is one such place. NM plays host to 7 out of the 8 climactic zones, from desert to tundra, only lacking tropical. Enchanted landscapes chisel and sculpt challenging and unique circumstances living under the state flag Zia sun emblem. Father Time tests and Mother Nature encourages. Plants and organisms that have adapted to the diverse and adverse conditions of our enchanted lands have unique and creative healing properties, as is evident in the traditional and cultural practices of both our Native Indigenous and Hispano societies.
Early pharmacologists focused on natural substances, mainly plant extracts. It was until the 17th century that botany and medicine went hand and hand, and then it changed: Science diverged from its physical foundation to controlled laboratories. The industrialization of agriculture and “conventional” societies changed perspectives and approaches. We are now becoming more conscious and returning to integrative approaches that our ancestors have known and applied generation upon generation.
Pharmacology developed in the 19th century as a biomedical science that applied the principles of scientific experimentation to therapeutic contexts. Today, pharmacologists harness the power of genetics, molecular biology, chemistry, and other advanced tools to transform information about molecular mechanisms and targets into therapies directed against disease, defects or pathogens, and create methods for preventative care, diagnostics, and, ultimately, personalized medicine. But, for millennia, other organisms have been serving as pharmacologists and have helped to harness the power of healing from their natural surroundings. In turn, this has helped to challenge and enhance their health through selective pressures authored by Mother Nature.
Over time, these organisms have developed diets and essences of being that have integrated into the very context of nutrition and health for a myriad of other creatures, including humans, via diversified fruit and vegetable produce options, grains, and other forage. By pollinating animal forage, these pollinator organisms also help to produce meat and fiber; such fantastic feats for such small beings.
It is this miraculous and magical energy that is bestowed by bees into their stored foods, as well. Historical folklore and modern medicine both recognize and share the benefits of honey and other bee products. Ancient cultures developed and refined methods of application including honey; bee bread (bee collected pollen mixed with honey and stored in honeycomb); propolis (antibacterial and antimicrobial resins harvested by the bees from various woody plants, shrubs and trees); royal jelly (a secretion by young nurse bees fed to all of the hive’s progeny for their first few days of life, and to the queen for her entire life); and venom from the bee sting.
Individually and collectively, in various proportions, these hive medicines have served as beneficial therapies for various conditions and cultures.
The application of bee hive product medicines is called Apitherapy. “Api” is Latin for bee and “Apis Mellifera” is our beloved honeybee. There are numerous races of Apis Mellifera- the majority of which originated in Eastern Europe, Africa and Asia. Thus, it is these cultures that have developed elixirs and concoctions of bee hive products for their apitherapeutic properties. It is with current scientific documentation that much of what these ancient cultures already knew is now being better understood through modern research and scientific applications.
Integrative Apitherapeutic applications can help various conditions and bodily systems including allergies, cardiovascular diseases, blood diseases, respiratory, digestive, kidney, musculoskeletal, nervous, eye, ENT (ear, nose and throat), skin, endocrine, nutrition and metabolic, genital, sexual, immunological, viral, cancers, oral, parasites, systemic, mental and pediatric.
In fact, there is research being conducted in north-eastern NM on the benefits of NM honey to treat antibiotic-resistant staph (MRSA) infections in children through a grant from UNM- Pediatrics by Farmington Pediatrician and beekeeper, Dr. Stephen Rankin. (American Bee Journalarticle reprint and NMBKA PowerPoint slideshow link.)
Honeybees and their stewards are indeed midwives helping to pollinate wild and cultivated forage for the one and the many. As community-minded, super-organismal magic makers, honeybees and their stewards have been sharing their efforts with cultures and peoples across varied lands for many moons. We honor them and their efforts for our communities, now and for future generations.
We hope that interested community members will continue to participate in mindful pollinator promotion and production…for it does indeed take a community network to support local, regional, national and global production of food, fiber, and medicine through positive stewardship of our Tierra, Aire y Agua – Land, Air, and Water. Somos Agradecidos/We are Thankful.
Melanie M. Kirby is a professional apiculturist, honeybee breeder and consilience researcher based in New Mexico. She considers herself to be a seed saver — with the bees as the seeds — by finding and sharing quality stock lines with beekeepers around the nation and globe. In her spare time, Melanie makes honey wine and exquisite medicinal hive products and beeswax arts. Connect with Melanie at Zia Queen Bees and Rocky Mountain Survivor Queen Bee Cooperative.
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