Just what exactly is Propolis?

Of all the substances extracted from the beehive, propolis is perhaps the most unusual, at least in the sense that it finds itself popular as a natural healing remedy. Propolis is actually a blend of bee secretion and resins from tree bark. Bees collects these resins along with leaves and plant life including tree buds, sap, and various other plant life and combine them with their own secretions to create propolis ‘glue’. It is then used quite liberally around the beehive, generally in one of two very important ways. First, it is used as a basic cement filler. At normal temperatures it is quite sticky and pliable and it is pasted into small holes and cracks in the hive to create a more secured environment. It is not, as many suggest, used to ‘seal’ the hive, since the beehive actually requires holes and a reasonable amount of airflow in order to flourish. So it is used in a selective way alongside beeswax to effect structural repairs and fill-in the larger cracks and holes. As the temperature of propolis drops, it turns into a fairly hard and brittle substance, so it’s ideal for making these hive-wall repairs.

propolis chunk in raw form

But the other role of propolis, the one for which it is commonly thought to have benefits which transpose to the realm of humans, is in its anti-biotic and anti-septic properties. These properties are present initially in the resins collected from the trees and are thought to be further enhanced when the resins are formed and mixed with the bees own secretions. In this state, the propolis benefits extend to being used as a form of mummifying agent to place a protective coating over any small animals and insects that find a way into the hive but do not ultimately find a way out!

When you encounter raw fresh or extract propolis for the first time, it isn’t a very attractive substance by any stretch of the imagination. It looks a little like treacle or molasses but without the purity. Various techniques are used to extract the propolis most commonly being the use if a food grade alcohol, which removes the active compounds without really adding anything significant to the final solution. To get into specifics, the most common and preferred alcohol used is a 70% ethyl alcohol which permits the resultant tincture to be used internally or externally. If the finished product is for external, topical use only, then a lower grade rubbing alcohol can be used.

In the first stage of processing the propolis is collected from the beehive and freed from contaminants such as waxes and hive wall debris. It is usually quite solid and hard at this point and in small pieces. Once the concentration level is determined, often a 20-30% extract is sought, the correct amount of alcohol is added to the propolis and placed into a container. The contained is sealed and agitated then stored in a warm dark place. The contained is re-agitated several times each day over a period of around 2 weeks, then the liquid can be strained and the solids disposed of. The liquid, in this extracted state is now ready for use as a topical or ingestible agent. Obviously in a commercial operation the methods are a little more sophisticated but they are usually based upon the above simple principal.

The process can but does not have to stop there. Many commercial applications of propolis require a tincture or extract with a higher concentration of active ingredient versus the alcohol. In this case the substance is evaporated (the alcohol evaporates) leaving a concentrated end product. The longer the extraction process the more concentrated the propolis becomes. When the end product is a powder within a capsule, there is an additional drying stage to remove all moisture from the substance before the bee caps are made.

Other applications for the liquid include making a salve by the addition of petroleum jelly, perhaps with other healing ingredients. It can also be used as a mouth spray for treating ulcers. Most people prefer to buy their propolis post some form of processing, but it can also be purchased in chunks. Here, only the obvious contaminants and debris are removed from the substance.

In most cases it is the anti viral and antibiotic properties of propolis which are being sought, therefore they must be preserved throughout the extraction and manufacturing processes.

So what are the benefits of propolis?

It is used commonly in the field of dental hygiene. In the treatment of mouth sores, ulcers and cankers etc, it has been shown to provide relief and remedy. Several companies offer propolis toothpaste and others offer various forms of canker sore treatments which often take the form of a liquid propolis spray. It can often be found blended with other herbs to increase the broadness of its appeal, if not always the potency of the product. Certainly it has found itself widely popular in treating canker sores. These can be extremely painful and an application of propolis has been shown to help. So clearly there are some health benefits to using bee propolis in the realm of dental hygiene.

As a dietary supplement it is used also for its anti-biotic and anti-viral properties, with various studies revealing potential benefits for all types of gastrointestinal and urinary tract infections as well as chronic stomach and intestinal ulcers, but also it is perceived to have a positive effect on the immune system. Propolis contains a relatively high concentration of bioflavonoids and antioxidants which have been associated with enhancing the function of the immune system and the endocrine system.

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. You can find it in various forms in health food stores or get the raw stuff from beekeepers. I recommend it as a good topical treatment for uncomplicated wounds and, when used as a gargle or in spray form, as a remedy for sores and irritations in the mouth. I use propolis in tincture form to treat canker sores and sore throats.

Propolis and Cancer

There are various research papers which have been made available online covering the impact of propolis of various forms of cancer. Once should take caution when reading such papers, their scope is often limited to lab animals and can often be published out of context.
One such study, and there are countless more, concluded the following -“Propolis halted neurofibromatosis tumor growth in a group of cancer patients taking part in a study by scientists at Universitaets Klinikum Eppendorf in Hamburg, Germany.” In previous studies the German team identified CAPE’s anti-cancer abilities. CAPE is a natural compound found in some foods, but is found in a highly concentrated form in propolis. Propolis had been previously been thought only to have potential as an anti-cancer agent through its apparent ability to boost the immune system. This was part of a much wider scope of clinical trials and one should seek to uncover the full details of the report before drawing conclusions.