By Cheryl Myers, RN
Bees are amazing creatures that we should never take for granted. They live in incredibly sophisticated groups and work together to create astonishing architecture and systems of feeding and caring for their community. A beehive is a city in which every resident knows their purpose and works diligently to perform their tasks. Bees are highly successful and would be thriving were it not for human-made challenges in their environment.
Bees are responsible for the survival of some of our most important food crops and over 90 percent of wild plants.
If we didn’t have bees, crops such as apples, almonds, peaches, nectarines, berries, squash, broccoli, cantaloupes, and cucumbers would become extinct. The FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of United Nations) states that approximately 70 percent of all crop species grown for human use depend on bees and other pollinators. Taking care of the health of bee communities is an excellent investment in our own well-being.
Aside from their agricultural necessity, bees also make propolis, a very powerful substance that promotes the health of the hive—and our human health, too.
Propolis: Defender of the City
The word propolis is Greek for “defender of the city.” Propolis is made from the resins collected from trees and other plants and then modified by the bees’ own enzymes as they process the material during transport and application. Some have called it “bee glue” because it is used to seal cracks and breaks in the hive structure, but it is also a potent antibiotic, antiviral, and antifungal agent.
Small mice and lizards have been known to enter bee hives. The bees defend their colony from the invaders by killing them with stings. However, they cannot remove the body. If the body remains and decays, it will pollute the hive and make it unlivable. The solution? They cover the animal with propolis. It is so powerful that it arrests the putrefaction process and eliminates the pathogens related to the decay of the body. In effect, they mummify the creature, and it dries but does not contaminate the hive. The ancient Egyptians observed this and incorporated propolis into both their mummification processes and their medicinal practices.
A Rainbow of Propolis
Propolis’s color and consistency can vary greatly depending upon the plants visited by the bees and the geographic location. It is very common for bees to collect crude resins from trees, especially conifers and poplars, but they also utilize flowers and other plants. You may hear propolis referred to as green, red, yellow, or brown. Regardless of its color, propolis has benefits. Those benefits may vary, however, based on the physical characteristics of this compound.
What Is in Propolis?
Scientists have investigated the many components found in propolis. Though the actual amounts of them may vary, the main compounds typically include polyphenols, vitamins (including vitamins B1, B2, B6, C, and E), minerals (including magnesium, potassium, zinc, and calcium), enzymes, antifungal and antibacterial flavonoids, plus pinene and other essential oils that occur naturally in both tree and plant resins.
Polyphenols, including flavonoids and phenolic acids, are excellent antioxidants. The bioflavonoids are also antioxidants that reduce the formation of free radicals and the activity of free radicals already in existence.
Amber propolis from poplar trees has been investigated and found to have flavones, flavanones, and phenolic acids beneficial for health. In birch propolis, flavones and flavonols are the key players. South American red and green propolis have been found to contain coumaric and diterpenic acids, while C-prenylflavanones are found in Pacific propolis.
This shows that the location of the bee communities and availability of specific plants do indeed influence the makeup of propolis. In one study, researchers from central Europe tested a variety of propolis extracts from the region and found that the amount of total flavonoids (ranging from 2.4 to 16.4 percent) and the total polyphenol content (ranging between 23.3 and 63.2 percent) varied significantly. This variability, in turn, contributed to the strength of the propolis’s antimicrobial effects. While not as well known in the United States, propolis has been extensively researched for its antifungal, antibacterial, and antiviral properties in
Europe and Asia.
Early Cancer Research
A study published in the journal Phytotherapy Research compared various types of propolis. This research indicated that propolis from different regions (tropical, subtropical, and temperate zones) all share antibacterial activity. Another study reported that propolis specifically from Europe, South America, and China shows antitumor potential due to its phenolic compounds. This validates an in vitro study from Thailand that found that propolis possesses antitumor activity, shrinking cancer cells after 24 to 72 hours of treatment. Research published in Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine found that the polyphenols in propolis are connected to its ability to inhibit the growth of cancer cells. The authors stated that with further investigation, propolis could be considered a possible treatment option for different types of leukemia.
One of the most common chronic viral infections in the world is caused by the herpes virus. Herpes is a group of viruses that cause genital herpes and fever blisters (herpes simplex) as well as chickenpox (varicella), shingles (herpes zoster), and other, less common diseases. The herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1) is generally responsible for cold sores and fever blisters, while HSV-2 commonly causes genital herpes. These two viruses are incredibly similar, but far more people are infected with HSV-1. In fact, estimates in the US report that almost 70 percent of the population have been exposed to or are infected with HSV-1.
Herpes virus infections are lifelong. And while cold sores are not necessarily life threatening, they are painful and unsightly, and are reactivated during times of high stress. How many brides, for example, have had to use heavy makeup at their wedding to try to cover an emerging red lip blister?
Propolis is extremely effective for both HSV-1 and HSV-2. In a 2012 study, people in the early stages of cold sore development, which includes stinging, itching, tingling, and redness, were treated with either acyclovir (an antiviral drug) or a lip cream containing a special purified European propolis extract, GH2002. The propolis lip cream was fast acting, with pain relief noted the first day and even greater reductions in the following three days. In comparison, the acyclovir group experienced an increase in their pain level on the first day. At the end of the nine-day study, researchers noted that almost 80 percent of the propolis group had gone from the redness phase to direct healing, avoiding the blistering and scabbing (the encrustation stage) entirely. This is particularly good news for anyone who has been embarrassed by a fever blister for several days or even weeks.
In a study by researchers at the University of Heidelberg, GH2002 was investigated for its activity against HSV-1. Amazingly, this propolis extract reduced the formation of viral plaques (the areas of cell destruction) by 98 percent. The scientists also found that, even though single compounds from propolis had antiviral activity, the health benefits were significantly boosted when the whole propolis extract was used, meaning there is important synergy occurring between the antiviral agents in propolis.
Other research using this same propolis extract found that it also suppressed HSV-2, reducing the activity of the virus by 99 percent. The researchers found that pretreatment prior to an infection was significantly effective at stopping the herpes virus.
In addition to chronic viral infections, propolis is effective against the viruses that cause the common cold and influenza (the “flu”). Studies have shown it can shorten the duration of a cold or the flu by 50 percent or more.
There is a great health threat from the chronic and excessive use of antibiotic drugs. This has created bacteria that are now immune to the antibiotics once used to kill them. One of these superbugs is called methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). MRSA is problematic following surgery or anytime the immune system is weakened. Sometimes people carry this infection for the rest of their lives, because it is so difficult to eradicate.
An in vitro study found that GH2002 had a high degree of antibacterial activity against MRSA strains. This has led more researchers to investigate the antibacterial properties of propolis and to suggest that it “might be used in the development of alternative products for therapy of microbial infections.”
Other work has demonstrated that propolis also has antifungal capabilities, as well as reducing the activity of the common yeast Candida albicans and inhibiting Escherichia coli bacteria.
Not All Propolis Is Created Equal
It always pays to do your homework when selecting any supplement to improve your health. Standardization, purification processes, delivery systems, and other factors often play key roles in the ability or failure of a supplement to produce benefits. This is true of propolis as well.
Many companies sell crude propolis, which can be as much as two-thirds beeswax and other impurities. Several clinical studies have used propolis that is purified and beeswax-free. That means the propolis content is far more concentrated and, because it does not contain beeswax, is much less likely to cause an allergic reaction. Propolis can be delivered as a topical cream for cold sores and fever blisters, as well as in a capsule form to swallow for broader spectrum immune benefits. Propolis is an amazingly powerful compound to add to your medicine chest of natural interventions for a wide variety of health concerns. 
Cheryl Myers, RN, is an integrative health nurse, author, and nationally recognized expert on natural medicine, as well as the head of scientific affairs and education for EuroPharma (www.europharmausa.com).
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