To Your Health

Bees Make Something Besides Honey: What You Need To Know About Propolis

Updated 2 years ago Peter McCarthy
A Honey Bee Takes Nectar
A Honey Bee Takes Nectar
Photo Credit: Wikipedia, Creative Commons License

Like many traditional remedies in use for centuries, bee propolis hasn't been studied much because money can't be made from patenting a cure in use since Hippocrates. That just makes it mysterious, but it's potential benefits are enormous.

After a long day sailing and swimming in the Aegean Sea plus shopping and eating like royalty on Simi Island, my friends and I ferried back to Rhodes in time for the day's last stop at a Bee Museum in the village of Pastida. Exhausted, I was as polite as I could figure out how to be while wanting to crash somewhere, anywhere.

The museum, filled with elaborate displays detailing the fascinating life of bees, was great, but my mind was too overloaded to appreciate it.

I felt a little guilty at not participating while the gang shopped for honey products in the gift shop, but I joined in for photographs before the owner surprised us with generous gift bags. Honey isn't a big favorite in our house, too sweet for our tastes, but back on Roosevelt Island in New York, a week later, I discovered an unexpected wonder in the package – a tincture of propolis in a small bottle.

Translated literally from the original Greek, propolis means "before the city." Some take that to mean "suburbs." For others, it means the city's protector.

In bee hives, propolis is a complex resin that fills in small gaps that stabilize the structure. Larger gaps are filled with beeswax. But within the hives and where humans have been involved, its effectiveness has keep it in continuous use for thousands of years.

Hippocrates used the bee propolis to heal open wounds, including internal injuries. According to an article from the Save Institute, "Over the years, it’s been used to fight tuberculosis, colitis, viruses (including the flu virus), and even acne."

The effectiveness of propolis in preventing diseases and parasites from entering bee hives is generally recognized as well as its ability to combat bacterial and fungal growth. The implications of that for humans has intrigued scientists. Studies have been been undertaken but not nearly large or complex enough to produce certain results.

Money for studies isn't generally available without a predictable profit as an ultimate goal, hopefully a windfall profit.

Empirical Evidence

My wife and I were conditioned to have an open mind about propolis by something that happened with our aging cat Billy, a few years ago. Billy's life was being threatened by internal bleeding for which no cause could be found. None of the standard medicines worked, and he was kept alive with transfusions on a regular (and expensive) basis.

Then, a doctor at New York's Animal Medical Center suggested trying a Chinese herbal medicine, Yunnan Baiyao. Dr. Kahn explained that it was not a "miracle cure" and that, although it was known to be effective from decades of use in Asia, nobody knew why or how. AMC had already established itself as the finest veterinary practice in New York. So, we decided, with nothing to lose and a life to be save, why not?

Soon after starting treatments with Yunnan Baiyao, Billy's blood loss stopped completely and did not return for the rest of his life.

Propolis, like the Chinese remedy, has been successful in treating people but for many centuries longer. There is no known downside, except for reactions for people with "allergic or hypersensitivity to bee stings or bee products," as cautioned by folk medicine pioneer Andrew Weill, M.D.

I admit that, without knowing even that much, I opened my free bottle of propolis and spread a few drops on a chronic rash on my left arm, just above the elbow. Nothing else had been effective in taking away the sensitivity or the itch, but after using propolis, it was gone in three days. I tried another smaller spot on my opposite elbow. My wife used to to calm a burn she got while taking pizza out of our oven.

Propolis was as effective as any other medicine on the burn and more so than anything I was able to find for my persistent rash.

None of these amounts to an effective medical study, but since one of those is not likely to be forthcoming, it may be worth giving it a try. Since it's also very inexpensive, it will not hurt budgets either.

Will Propolis Cure Everything?

A silly question, of course, but with the excitement that folk remedies and alternative medicines can generate in an age of growing distrust toward the medical establishment, claims about what it can do strike me as extreme until some better proof is shown.

I agree with Dr. Weill: "A number of studies have tested its effectiveness in humans and animals as a treatment for burns, minor wounds, infections, inflammatory diseases, dental pain, and genital herpes. While promising, the results of these studies are preliminary." See the full article by clicking here.

In the absence of more and better studies, he adds, "propolis does have proven antibiotic and antiseptic properties and may also have antiviral and anti-inflammatory effects. I consider it safe and useful as a home remedy."

However, in a comprehensive review of literature published about propolis, Dr. Seema Patel, Bioinformatics and Medical Informatics Research Center, San Diego State University, found laboratory and animal studies that suggest propolis may be effective in treating at least ten different cancers.

The article, published n Green Med Info, which you can read here, goes into detail about why it works and details other reported benefits of propolis. Those results have not yet been universally accepted by mainstream medicine.

Be Cautious

If you're like me, you have bit of skepticism when it comes to standard medical dogma. For reasons better left to another article, I've learned to balance what I'm told with my own research. However, I realize that my skepticism might make alternatives appear more effective than they should.

Skepticism needs to extend in all directions. 

Experience shows us that the official story is often wrong. High carb, low fat diets, for example, once foundations of the establishment prescription for a healthy diet and weight control, are now being credited with contributing mightily to the obesity epidemic.

A wise consumer does her own research.

Well informed, as propolis may prove, is well armed.

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