Bee Products

Gifts from the Hive: Where would we be without the honeybee?

The gifts of the honeybee are many. Through their tireless work of gathering nectar and pollen and caring for the hive and its inhabitants, bees enhance our health through the products they create and as the world’s most valuable pollinators. You may not think of fruits, vegetables, and nuts and seeds as the product of bees, but you should—bees are an integral part of today’s food industry, and through pollination, are responsible for bringing many healthy and delicious foods to your table. Bees work in synergy with flowering plants: as they gather the nectar and pollen they need to feed themselves, they also spread pollen so plants can reproduce.

Today most of the almonds, blueberries, watermelon, cherries, avocados, cranberries, oranges, peaches, and raspberries grown in the United States are dependent on bees for pollination. Other valuable crops helped out by the bees include macadamia nuts, Brazil nuts, kiwi fruits, and coffee.[1] Thirty percent of the food we eat is a result of the pollination work of bees—that’s one out of every three bites you take! [2]

Besides the gift of an abundance of foods made possible by the honeybee, humans throughout the ages have revered bees for the gifts obtained directly from the hive. There’s good reason bees have long been considered magical creatures, not only is honey delicious, but along with bee pollen, propolis, and royal jelly, it’s good for us.

Honey

Honey is certainly the best known gift from the bees. Made from the sweet nectar from flowering plants collected by the worker bees, it serves as food for the hive. Although its main claim to fame is as a delicious natural sweetener, honey is so much more. It contains small amounts of numerous vitamins and minerals, and antioxidants that fight free radicals. But what really makes honey special is its ability to inhibit or destroy a wide variety of bacteria, fungi, and viruses, including Staphylococcus aureus and Candida albicans.[3] Because honey is mostly sugar, it draws water. When applied topically, such as to a wound, this osmotic activity inhibits the growth of bacteria. The moisture it draws also activates an enzyme which in turn leads to the creation of hydrogen peroxide. Honey supplies a slow-release, low-level source of hydrogen peroxide that is capable of killing microbes without damaging healthy tissue. Topically honey has been used successfully to treat eczema, psoriasis, fungal infections, dandruff, and cold sores as well as aiding in the healing of a variety of wounds and burns.[4] [5] Honey is also beneficial when taken internally (ever added honey to hot tea to soothe a sore throat?). It’s been shown to be as effective as an OTC cough suppressant for children with a nighttime cough[6] while stimulating antibody production when the body is exposed to infection.[7] Honey’s most surprising benefit is that, although it is mostly sugar, it doesn’t appear to have the same effect on the body as other sugars. In stark contrast to what most sugars do, honey actually appears to improve blood glucose levels, blood lipids, inflammation, and homocysteine levels.[8]

Bee Pollen

While popular with the health food crowd, bee pollen has never quite caught on with the general public. It’s too bad because bee pollen is pretty amazing stuff. Made by honeybees from a combination of pollen grains and nectar, bee pollen, or “bee bread,” is a protein-rich food source for the hive. It is chock full of nutrition, supplying protein, vitamins (including the B vitamins and vitamins C, E, D, and K), minerals (including calcium, copper, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, and zinc), and fatty acids.[9] [10] Local bee pollen has long been recommended for allergy relief by desensitizing the body to pollens in the area. In Chinese medicine bee pollen is considered an energy and nutritive tonic.[11] While the effects of bee pollen vary greatly depending on the flower from which it was obtained, research has shown that some varieties positively influence bone building, induce genes responsible for detoxification, and may even support apoptosis (cell death) of certain tumor cells.[12] [13] Bee pollen can be found in capsules or granules. Because of a small risk of allergic reaction, always start with one or two granules of pollen, working your way up to a larger dose.

Propolis

Made from the resin of flowers and trees, propolis is used by the bees to maintain the structural integrity of the hive and to protect the hive from pathogens. Sometimes referred to as “bee glue,” it was used medicinally by the ancient Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians, but disappeared from mainstream medicine until about a hundred years ago. Today scientists have identified more than 180 compounds in propolis, many of which are antioxidants and may contribute to its ability to inhibit pathogens, modulate inflammation, and support healing.[14] Propolis has been effectively used to speed the healing of wounds, ulcers, burns, and cold sores and seems particularly well suited to supporting oral health.[15] [16] [17] [18] [19] [20] Newer research has been looking at propolis’ potential effect on tumor cells, modulating immunity (preventing the immune system from either over or under-reacting), and fighting infections internally—[21] [22] [23]and the preliminary research looks promising. Propolis can be found in topical ointments and creams and in some toothpaste, as well as in capsules and tinctures for internal use.

Royal Jelly

If you want to be the queen bee, than royal jelly is for you. Royal jelly is the sole nourishment fed to larvae destined to become the queen and continues to nourish the queen through her life cycle. Like so many other bee products, royal jelly is rich in antioxidants and exerts a wide range of effects including modulating the immune system, inhibiting pathogens, and speeding healing.[24] But what makes royal jelly different are its fatty acids, twenty-eight trace minerals, and unique bioactive substances.[25] It appears to positively influence blood lipids and may even support the regeneration of brain cells.[26] [27] [28] Traditional Chinese medicine considers it a powerful tonic for strengthening both the male and female reproductive systems.[29] Because royal jelly is difficult to harvest it tends to draw a premium price. It can be found in liquid form, mixed with honey, and in capsules.

It seems there isn’t a single bee product that doesn’t benefit humans in some way—some people even use bee stings therapeutically! With so many wonderful gifts from the hive, it is easy to see why honeybees have been, and continue to be, so valuable to humans.

A World Without Bees?

Considering all the important gifts we’ve come to enjoy from the bees, no one wants to imagine a world without them, but that is exactly what beekeepers and scientist alike are worried about. Since 2006 bee populations everywhere have been declining at alarming rates. Bees are simply disappearing from their hives (presumably to die), leading to the eventual collapse of the entire hive. Since the mid-2000s beekeepers have lost 30 percent of their hives and some individual losses have been as high as 90 percent.[30] This alarming phenomenon is known as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) and perhaps the worst part is that no one knows exactly why it is happening.

Numerous theories abound, but most research on CCD is currently focused on four potential culprits: management stressors, parasites, pathogens, and environmental stressors.

Management Stressors

Today the production of honey is just one small piece of beekeeping. The far more financially lucrative side of beekeeping involves renting bees out as pollinators. Three quarters of all the bees in America are trucked across the country each year to help pollinate commercial crops. Packed up on shipping trucks, bees are often given supplemental feed in the form of sugar or high fructose corn syrup to sustain them. The overcrowded conditions, poor nutrition, and stress this migration involves takes its toll on the bees. Some point out that this lack of concern for the health of the bees in exchange for profit is all too similar to modern beef and chicken operations.

Parasites

One particularly problematic creature to the bees is the varroa mite. Not unlike a tick, this mite feeds on the blood of honeybees and leads to a weakening of the colony. If left untreated, a varroa mite infestation can wipe out an entire bee colony.

Pathogens

In general, no one pathogen is associated directly with CCD, but an overall increase in viruses and bacteria has been seen as they are spread much more easily than ever before due to current management practices.

Environmental Stressors

We have drastically decreased the availability of food sources for bees by exchanging native vegetation with huge swaths of monocrops. These crops are often genetically modified and sprayed heavily with pesticides. Besides potentially causing outright death, pesticides weaken bees’ immunity and may disrupt their cognitive and communication abilities.[31] [32] This is just one more reason to support organic agriculture.

Most likely it is a combination of these factors that is causing CCD. When bees are made weak by the stress of travel, environmental changes, nutrient deficiencies, and pesticides, they are less able to resist pathogens and agricultural chemicals, creating a vicious cycle. In other words, CCD is more than likely caused by humans. Protecting the health of the bees goes far beyond just saving this little insect, it protects our health (and food supply) too!

Choosing Honey

Unless labeled otherwise, most commercial honey is a blend of honey from different bees foraging around the country and as far away as China. It is usually pasteurized and ultra-filtered, which destroys the health-promoting enzymes and removes the trace amounts of bee pollen, propolis, and royal jelly that naturally occur in honey. Understanding the terms below will help you to find the best tasting and most beneficial honeys.

Monofloral

This type of honey is sourced from bees that only foraged from one type of plant. Just like wine or chocolate, these honeys will taste uniquely of the region and the plant they were made from. Some examples are buckwheat, orange blossom, tupelo, and manuka.

Manuka

Manuka honey has been harvested from honeybees that feed exclusively off the nectar of manuka trees (more commonly known as tea trees) in Australia and New Zealand. Manuka has been shown to inhibit an impressive array of bacteria, yeasts, and molds, including Helicobacter pylori (the bacteria responsible for 90 percent of gastric ulcers) and many bacteria associated with topical infections. It also displays potent antioxidant properties. It is unique among honeys because its health-promoting constituents are not damaged by heat and light like other honeys. Manuka honey is most commonly rated by the trademarked UMF (Unique Manuka Factor) based on its ability to inhibit bacteria. Other rating systems have also come into use, including MGO (Methylglyoxal) and NPA (Non Peroxide Activity), both of which measure methylglyoxal levels, the unique antibacterial compound found in manuka honey. In all of these rating systems, the higher the number, the higher the potency of the honey. Use of the term “active” alone is not regulated and in general is not considered to be a good indicator of manuka honey’s potency.

Raw

Unlike most commercial honeys, raw honey has never been heated above 120⁰F and may not have been filtered or only minimally so. This honey retains all its health-promoting qualities, like the enzymes, and is more likely to contain small particles of bee pollen, propolis, and royal jelly. Although all honey will eventually crystallize, raw honey tends to do so sooner, but can easily be returned to liquid by placing the jar in warm water and stirring the honey until the crystals have disappeared.

Whipped

Sometimes called creamed or spun, this honey is created by controlling the crystallization process to create very fine crystals that result in a smooth and spreadable honey that doesn’t drip. Whipped honey is often made from pasteurized honey, although some raw whipped honeys are available.

Organic

Honey that is certified organic has been harvested from bees raised in isolated places, away from contamination and beekeepers are not allowed to use antibiotics on their bees or chemicals in the harvesting of honey.

Local

Harvested from bees living in your general vicinity, local honey is prized by many because it contains small amounts of local pollen, which, with repeated exposure, is believed to desensitize the body to pollens in the environment, thus modulating seasonal allergies.

Recipes

Infused Honey

Infusing honey with herbs gives you the benefit of the honey, plus the power of the herb. Try lavender or chamomile for a calming honey, ginger for a sore throat remedy, turmeric for inflammation modulation, or any herb that sounds good to you such as mint, rosemary, cinnamon, or even dried whole chilies.

Add about ¼ cup of the dried herb to a sterilized glass canning jar. You may need to add a little less if the herb you are using is finely ground. Add 1 cup of raw, unfiltered honey to the jar. If your honey is thick, gently warm it by placing the jar in a bowl of hot water until it is pourable. Using a clean knife, mix the herbs and honey together well. Cap the jar and allow mixture to sit for 2 weeks, stirring the jar daily. Strain the honey through a fine mesh strainer into another sterilized jar (gently warm the mixture as directed above if needed) and cap. Use one teaspoon as needed. Mixture will keep for 18 months.

Healing Honey Balm

Making your own healing balm is surprisingly easy.

  • 1 bar beeswax (1 ounce)
  • ½ cup olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons raw honey

Grate or finely chop the beeswax. Combine the beeswax with the olive oil and place in a heat-proof bowl. Bring about two inches of water to a gentle boil in a saucepan and set the bowl over the simmering water, ensuring that the bottom of the bowl doesn’t touch the bottom of the saucepan (this is a double boiler). Reduce heat and gently simmer until beeswax has melted, stirring frequently. Remove the bowl from the heat and allow it cool slightly. Add honey to the oil and beeswax mixture and mix well. Pour mixture into a clean glass jar (such as a small mason jar) and allow it to cool overnight. Once the salve is set cap it and use as needed.


References

[1] Smithsonian Institute. Had your morning coffee? Thank a killer bee; Smithsonian scientist shows pollination by exotic honeybees increases coffee crop yields by more than 50 percent. ScienceDaily. June 13, 2002. Web Dec 11, 2013.

[2] Declining honeybees a ‘threat’ to food supply: US depends on insects to pollinate about one-third of crops. NBCNews.com. 2007. Available at: http://www.nbcnews.com/id/18442426/. Accessed Dec 11, 2013.

[3] Schor J. Honey has many health benefits other than sweetness. Denver Naturopathic Clinic News. Sept 28, 2005. Available at: http://www.denvernaturopathic.com/news/honeybaklava.html.

[4] Schor, J. Honey Relieves Herpes Better than Acyclovir. Denver Naturopathic Clinic News. Available at: http://www.denvernaturopathic.com/news/honeyherpes.html. Accessed Dec 16, 2013.

[5] Altman N. The Honey Prescription: the amazing power of honey has medicine. Rochester, VT: Healing Arts Press; 2010.

[6] Paul IM, Beller J, McMonagle A, et al. “Effect of honey, dextromethorphan, and no treatment on nocturnal cough and sleep quality for coughing children and their parents.” Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 2007 Dec;161(12):1140-6.

[7] Schor J. Honey has many health benefits other than sweetness. Denver Naturopathic Clinic News. Sept 28, 2005. Available at: http://www.denvernaturopathic.com/news/honeybaklava.html. Accessed Dec 16, 2013.

[8] Al-Wailis NS. Natural honey lowers plasma glucose, C-reactivce protein, homocysteine, and blood lipids in healthy, diabetic and hyperlipidemic subjects: comparison with dextrose and sucrose. J Med Food. 2004;7(1):100-7.

[9] Altman N. The Honey Prescription: the amazing power of honey has medicine. Rochester, VT: Healing Arts Press; 2010.

[10] Balch, Phyllis. Prescription for Herbal Healing. Avery, 2002; pg. 109

[11] Pitchford P. Healing with Whole Foods. 3rd Ed. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books; 2002.

[12] Wu YD, Lou YJ. A steroid of chloroform extract from bee pollen of Brassica campestris induces apoptosis in human prostate cancer PC-3 cells. Phytother Res. 2007;21(11):1087-91. s

[13] Wang B, Diao Q, Zhang Z, Liu Y, Gao Q, Zhou Y, Li S. Antitumor activity of bee pollen polysaccharides from Rosa rugosa. Mol Med Rep. 2013;7(5):1555-8.

[14] Uropatnicki AK, Szliszka E, Krol W. Historical aspects of propolis research in modern times. Evid Based Complment Alternat Med. 2013;2013:964149.

[15] Olczyk P, Komosinska-Vassev K, Winsz-Szczotka K, Stojko J, Klimek K and Kozma EM. Propolis induces chondroitin/dermatan sulphate and hyaluronic acid accumulation in the skin of burned wound. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2013; 2013:290675.

[16] Olczyk P, Wisowski G, Komosinska-Vassev K, Stojko J, Klimek K, Olczyk M, Kozma EM. Propolis modified collagen types I and III accumulation in the matrix of burnt tissue. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2013;2013:423809.

[17] Kucharzewski M, Kózka M, Urbanek T. Topical treatment of nonhealing venous leg ulcer with propolis ointment. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2013;2013:254017.

[18] Schnitzler P, Neuner A, Nolkemper S, Zundel C, Nowack H, Heinz Censch K, Reichling J. Antiviral activity and mode of action of propolis extracts and selected compounds. Phytotherapy Research. 2010;24(S1):S20-S28.

[19] da Cunha MG, Franchin M, de Carvalho Galvão LC, Bueno-Silva B, Ikegaki M, de Alencar SM, Rosalen PL. Apolar bioactive fraction of melipona scutellaris geopropolis on Streptococcus mutans biofilm. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2013;2013:256287.

[20] Skaba D, Morawiec T, Tanasiewicz M, Mertas A, Bobela Elzbieta, Szliszka E, et al. Influence of the toothpaste with barzilian ethanol extract propolis on the oral cavity health. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2013;2013:215391.

[21]Wang K, Ping S, Haung S, Hu L, Xuan H, Zhang C, Hu F. Molecular mechanisms underlying the in vitro anti-inflammatory effects of a flavonoid-rich ethanol extract from Chinese propolis (poplar type). Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2013;213:127672.

[22] Hori JI, Zamboni SD, Carrão DS, Goldman GH, Berretta AA. The inhibition of inflammasome by Brazilian propolis (EPP-AF). Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2013;2013:418508.

[23] Choudhari, MK, Haghniaz R, Rajwade JM, Paknikar KM. Anticancer activity of Indian stingless bee propolis: An in vitro study. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2013;2013:928280.

[24]Readicker-Henderson E. A short history of the honey bee. Portland, OR: Timber Press, Inc; 2009.

[25] Stocker A, Schramel P, Kettrup A, Bengsch E. Trace and mineral elements in royal jelly and homeostatic effects. Journal of Trace Elements in Medicine and Biology. 2005;19(2-3):183-189.

[26] Guo H, Sato M, Miyazawa I, Shibata M, Takahata Y, Morimatsu F. Royal jelly supplementation improves lipoprotein metabolism humans. Journal of Nutritional Science and Vitaminology. 2007;53(4):345-348

[27]Hattori N, Nomoto H, Fukumitsu H, Mishima S, Furukawa S. Royal jelly and its unique fatty acid, 10-hydroxy-trans-2-deconoic acid, promote neurogenesis stem/progenitor cells in vitro. Biomedical Research. 2007;28(5):261-266.

[28] Hashimoto M, Kanda M, Ikeno K, Hayashi Y, Nakamura T, Ogawa Y, et al. Oral administration of royal jelly facilitates mRNA expression of glial cell line-derived neurotrophic factor and neurofilament H in the hippocampus of the adult mouse brain. Bioscience, Biotechnology, and Biochemistry. 2005;69(4):800-805.

[29] Pitchford P. Healing with Whole Foods. 3rd Ed. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books; 2002.

[30] Honey Bees and Colony Collapse Disorder. USDA: Agricultural Research Service. Dec 2, 2013. Available at: http://www.ars.usda.gov/News/docs.htm?docid=15572

[31]Di Prisco G, Cavaliere V, Annoscia D, Varricchio P, Caprio E, Nazzi F, et al. Neonicotinoid clothianidin adversely affects insect immunity and promotes replication of viral pathogen in honey bees. PNAS. 2013; PNAS Early Edition:1-6.

[32]Hopwood J, Vaughan M, Shepherd M, Biddinger D, Mader E, Hoffman Black S, Mazzacano C. Are neonicotinoids killing bees? A review of research into the effects of neionicotinoid insecticides on bees, with recommendations for action. 2012. The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation