What’s the buzz about bee pollen and propolis?
Bees are a busy bunch, and their buzz of activity can also benefit human health. Propolis and bee pollen are two substances that have been borrowed from bees for thousands of years and used in different ways to boost wellness.
From the Greek, meaning to “defend the city,” propolis is known as “bee glue” because the resinous substance, accumulated by bees from various plants, seals holes and cracks in the beehive. It’s also used to smooth out the beehive’s inner surface while retaining its internal temperature and contributing to a germ-free environment.
Sweet- and pleasant-smelling, propolis has antiseptic, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, antibacterial, antimycotic, antifungal, antiulcer, anticancer, and immunomodulatory properties.
Astonishingly, propolis contains more than 500 compounds, including phytochemicals and amino acids. Call it super glue: propolis has been used in treatment of diabetes, burns, wounds, neurodegenerative diseases, gastrointestinal disease, respiratory tract-related diseases, cardiovascular disorders, and beyond.
“Propolis contains polyphenols known as flavonoids, along with vitamins and minerals,” says Karen Wright, naturopathic doctor at Vancouver’s Westcoast Naturopathic Clinic.
“The constituents vary from geographical area, depending on the surrounding plants the bees forage on, but in general they are well studied and shown to be antimicrobial—for bacteria, viruses, parasites, fungus, and yeasts—anti-inflammatory, and full of antioxidants.
“Propolis is most often used in cosmetic products and for superficial skin and mouth lesions,” Wright adds. “Propolis guards against various types of infections, alleviates painful symptoms, and speeds healing time.”
Propolis might also be used for acute and chronic inflammations in the lower and upper airway, cutaneous ulcers, periodontis, and sinusitis.
Tasreen Alibhai, naturopathic doctor at Vitalia Health Care Inc., notes that, although further large-scale research on humans is needed, smaller studies and animal studies of propolis point to its promise as an antibacterial and antifungal agent.
“I do see a lot of patients with digestive symptoms related to <Candida> overgrowth,” Alibhai says. “Based on [several], propolis may be beneficial to incorporate as a part of treatment for candida, especially if the fungal strain is resistant to a prescription antifungal ... I may use propolis in some of the treatment-resistant cases that I see.”
Collecting on the bodies of bees as they flit from one flower to the next, pollen also contains saliva and nectar or honey. Bees carry these balls of pollen back to the hive in sacs on their legs and store them in the honeycomb. The pollen then ferments into “bee bread,” which feeds a bee colony.
Bee pollen contains vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates, lipids, and protein. It also seems to have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties while offering immune support and speeding up wound healing.
A properly functioning immune system is vital for health and well-being. Scientific research strongly suggests that propolis is one of the most promising immunomodulation agents out there, though more and larger studies are needed.
Propolis seems to increase the production of antibodies; in other words, it is a natural antibiotic that protects the immune system, in part due to its high content of polyphenols, also called phenols.
Propolis can also contribute to a more effective immune system when the immune response isn’t strong enough to control a specific infection.
Bee pollen has been shown to provide enhanced immunity support by increasing the immune system response against infection and disease. Bee pollen extract has also been found to kill potentially harmful bacteria such as <E. coli> and <Salmonella> as well as those that cause staph infections.
Bee pollen and propolis may also play a role in alleviating allergies. Research suggests the substances can block the release of histamine, the main compound responsible for allergic reactions.
Other research shows it may reduce the severity and onset of allergies by significantly reducing the activation of mast cells. When activated, mast cells release chemicals that trigger an allergic reaction.
However, it’s important to note that numerous studies have shown propolis can trigger allergic reactions in people who are hypersensitive to it. For that reason, it shouldn’t be used in young children or pregnant women or those who are allergic or sensitive to bees, bee products, or tree resin.
Bee pollen may cause increased bleeding if taken with certain blood thinners such as warfarin. Wright also urges caution in oral uses for people on prescription medications that utilize liver CYP450 enzymes (since this can increase or decrease the drug’s efficacy).
Propolis has antiviral activity. One study found it could potentially interfere with host cell invasion by SARS-CoV-2 and may block a substance called proinflammatory PAK1, a kinase in COVID-19 patients. It might help ward off colds, flu, and other illnesses transmitted by germs.
Bee pollen comes in small, crunchy pellets in its natural form. One tablespoon contains 16 calories, 0.24 g of fat, 1.2 g of protein, and 2.18 g of carbohydrates. You can add it to yogurt, oatmeal, smoothies, cereal, salads, drinks, rice bowls, or drinks. It can also be added to raw protein bars, raw desserts, or candies.
Propolis comes in chewable, tablet, capsule, or liquid extract form. Due to its antimicrobial, antiviral, and antioxidant properties, it’s available in the form of mouthwash solutions, creams, throat lozenges, powder, and also in many cosmetic and dermatological products.
While bees provide us with an abundance of outstanding natural remedies, Karen Wright, ND, recommends being mindful of the bees themselves and treading lightly.
“I encourage people to be mindful of the impact on the bee ecology in using their products,” says Wright. “The bees use propolis for their own individual and collective behavioural defences. Please step lightly in their use in order to give bees a chance to recover and flourish—and help the environment while we’re at it.”
Propolis comes from the Greek words for “before” or “in defence of” (pro) the “city” (polis). The essential meaning is “defender of the city [hive].” Bees and honey were key symbols in Greek culture and often associated with knowledge, health, and power. As a wellness substance, propolis dates back thousands of years. The ancient Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians were aware of its healing properties and used it extensively as a form of medicine.