Honeybees collect nectar and pollen from plants as sources of food. They also collect water to drink and an incredible substance called propolis. Propolis is made from a resin-like material honeybees gather from poplar tree buds, as well as buds from conifer trees. In our area of Western Massachusetts we have many poplar trees, in other parts of the country and the world honeybees collect resin to create propolis from other types of trees. Bees then create a mixture of this resin, pollen, wax, and natural enzymes to make propolis.
Inside the hive, honeybees use propolis to fill cracks, smooth out rough surfaces, and coat hive entrances. A few years ago, we observed hives in our apiary with more propolis were stronger, more populated, and had better overwinter survival rates through the long and variable winters in Massachusetts. These observations led to research about this natural substance bees seemed to be using as medicine: Could it have benefits for humans too?
How Do Bees Use Propolis?
Research led to Dr. Marla Spivak, who has collected extensive data on propolis and its importance to both honeybees and humans. Dr. Spivak notes honeybee colonies continue to collect and coat hives with propolis, regardless of beekeepers’ attempts to remove the sticky substance. She suggests this behavior means honeybees need propolis for some reason, and wonders if bees use propolis as medicine.
In her article “The Benefits of Propolis,” Dr. Spivak states: We know that propolis has remarkable medicinal properties for humans. It is highly antimicrobial, meaning that it is antibacterial, ant- fungal and even antiviral. So does it have medicinal benefit to the bees
Our observations, and Dr. Spivak’s research, pointed to a big “yes”.
It is important for hive health to leave most propolis where the bees put it — they work hard to create a balance inside the hive for the maximum benefit of the colony. We would be doing them a disservice to undo all their hard work. There are times where bees will use propolis to seal boxes and frames together, lovingly called “bee glue” by many beekeepers. These sticky bits can be carefully scraped from hive boxes and processed in a few ways:
Make a ‘Bee Glue Varnish’ for Hive Boxes
Propolis that must be scraped from hive boxes can be dissolved in 190-proof grain alcohol and painted back on the inside of wooden boxes. Because propolis is such a thick and sticky substance, it takes weeks to fully dissolve. The alcohol evaporates off the wood, leaving a coat of propolis “varnish”.
Propolis has been used for generations in varnish for fine instruments, including violins. This propolis paint is a way for us to give the bees back the propolis they had so carefully collected, while also allowing us to continue managing our hives without having the boxes completely glued together.
Medicinal Bee Propolis Tincture
For human consumption, propolis can be made into a tincture using 190-proof grain alcohol, that is filtered after sitting for 4 to 6 weeks. This tincture can be taken in water or, for those with strong disposition, dropped directly on the tongue.
We use propolis tincture to treat sore throats, toothaches, colds and flu symptoms. Tincture can be used as a natural bandaid when applied directly to cuts and scrapes but the grain alcohol does burn! To solve this problem, I recently made a propolis salve using our beeswax, organic olive oil, and propolis tincture we had prepared. The salve can be applied to scrapes and cuts without worry about the alcohol burn.
Two summers ago, I became seriously ill with Lyme disease. My immune system was destroyed after six months untreated for the virus and three months of strong antibiotics. Along with lots of rest, plenty of water and healthy food, I took propolis tincture daily and believe I owe my full recovery to this magical medicine from the bees.
Kristen Tool is co-owner of Olsen Farm in Lanesborough, Mass., where she works with her husband to revive 28 acres of a four-generation family farm by keeping bees, growing fruit, vegetables and herbs without the use of pesticides, raising poultry, cultivating mushrooms, leading workshops, and preparing plant remedies. She is the Secretary of the Northern Berkshire Beekeepers Association and manages a crew of incredible teens who run the local farmers market through a nonprofit program, Roots Rising. Connect with Kristen at Olsen Farm on Facebook, on Instagram @olsen_farm, and read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.