Sustainable Use of Bee Products
Ever since man has been keeping honeybees, the use of hive products in medicine has been important. Honeybee products, such as honey, bee pollen, propolis, royal jelly, beeswax, and bee venom, have long been used in traditional medicine. The exact origins of apitherapy can be traced back to ancient Egypt, Greece, and China. Healing properties of honey and other bee products are found in many religious texts. Romans used honey to heal their wounds after battles.
Ethnomedicine, a study of the traditional medicine practiced by various ethnic groups, is a complex multidisciplinary system. It applies the methods of ethnobotany and medical anthropology and constitutes the use of plants and the natural environment. Since ancient times animal products have constituted part of the inventory of medicinal substances used in various cultures. Despite technological developments, bee products along with herbal drugs still occupy a preferential place in a majority of the population in the Third World and terminal patients in the west. Many valuable drugs of today came into use through the study of indigenous remedies. Although ethnomedicine has been the source of healing for people for millennia, it is in the last decade that research interests in ethnomedicine and ethnopharmacy have increased tremendously.
Bee products in their raw form along with crude extracts and purified compounds from them have been shown to exhibit antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, antioxidative, radio-protective, and tissue-regenerating activities. Some recent studies have revealed that natural honeybee products exhibit immune-modulating properties, inhibit tumor cell growth and metastasis, and induce apoptosis of cancer cells. These bioactive natural products may help manage, among others, cancer, autoimmune diseases, Alzheimer’s, Lyme disease, and antibiotic-resistant infections. With the increasing threat of antibiotic-resistant infections and drug over-use, the return to honey bee products as a natural, multipurpose healing therapy makes all the sense in the world.
Pure beeswax from Apismellifera consists of hundreds (284 to be exact) of different compounds including saturated and unsaturated monoesters, diesters, saturated and unsaturated hydrocarbons, free acids, and hydroxy polyesters.
Beeswax is made by young bees (2 to 3 weeks old) in the hive, after they feed the young brood with royal jelly and before the young bees leave the hive to forage. Worker bees engorged with honey secrete small, colourless wax platelets (scale-like shapes) from eight wax glands on the underside of their abdomens. These then are scraped off by other worker bees and chewed into pliable, opaque pieces by the action of saliva and enzymes. Once chewed, re-chewed and attached to the comb, the pieces form the building blocks of the hive – the hexagonal cells of the honeycomb.
Wax, this crucial element of the hive, is used to build comb cells for the young, and, when mixed with propolis, seals cracks in the hive and protects the brood from infections. Beeswax also is used to build storage cells for honey and to cap the ripened cells.
Of all bee byproducts, wax has been, and remains, the most versatile and widely used material. Throughout history, beeswax has been more valuable than honey, and it was even considered legal tender in parts of Europe – people paid their taxes with it! Historically, beeswax was used by artisans to create models; priests used it to embalm bodies; it served as glue to hold together woodwork; it was used to waterproof walls in Roman times; it was a polish and a lubricant; it served as a writing tablet; it strengthened sewing thread; and it was used to preserve food, creating a moisture-proof casing (as in cheese). Of course, beeswax makes the finest candles, burning clean and long, with little (if any) waxy residue left behind. For centuries, beeswax candles were the only light source used in Catholic churches; they believed beeswax to be a symbol of purity.
Today, beeswax has dozens of uses – from cosmetics, food and pharmaceuticals to candles, modelling and polishes. While no longer accepted as legal tender, beeswax is still a valuable product of the hive and an “all-natural,” preferred ingredient for many consumers.
Bees gather resins from trees, flowers and artificial sources to make a sticky substance called propolis. The makeup of propolis varies depending on the hive, the season, the area and the available resin sources, but a “typical” northern temperate propolis is made up of about 50 percent resins and vegetable balsams, 30 percent waxes, 10 percent essential oils, and 5 percent pollen. The chemical composition varies as well, depending on the region’s vegetation. Bees use this sticky substance, also known as “bee glue,” to patch cracks in the hive and to provide a protective layer against bacteria and fungi. When propolis dries, it becomes hard and impervious.
Historically, beekeepers believed that bees used propolis to coat and seal off the colony from the elements, such as rain and cold wind. However, we now know that bees survive and do better with increased hive ventilation during the winter months.
Twentieth-century research indicates that propolis is used by bees to reinforce the structure of the hive, to reduce vibration, to create a barrier against diseases and parasites entering the hive, and to inhibit bacterial growth, or “quarantine” threats inside the hive.
Bees like to take out the trash by carrying waste out of and away from the hive. But if a small animal like a mouse makes its way into the hive and dies, it is too large for the bees to carry out. So, they use propolis to seal and mummify the carcass, rendering it harmless to the hive inhabitants.
Propolis has been used for centuries by many cultures for its antiseptic, antimicrobial and detoxifying properties. In countries where antibiotics are not widely available, propolis is commonly used to heal a wide variety of wounds including burns, ulcers and inflammation (hence the nickname “Russian penicillin”). Propolis is said to prevent the growth of bacteria in cuts and burns when used as an antiseptic wash or salve. Similar to honey being used to alleviate allergies, propolis is used as an antihistamine, and it’s commonly taken as a remedy for sore throats.
Just like any other hive product, the properties of propolis vary with the sources used by each individual hive. Therefore, any potential medicinal properties of one propolis may not be present in another.
Pollen, male-gamete-producing material, is formed in the anthers of flowering plants. The major components of pollen are proteins and amino acids, lipids and sugars. Pollination involves transferring the pollen onto the stigma (the female component) of a flower by wind, water, bird or insect, with bees being a reliable pollination vehicle for many plants. Worker bees gather pollen while out foraging, bring it back to the comb and store it. There they pack it into granules and add honey and nectar (or sugar and enzymes), turning it into “bee bread” through lactic acid fermentation. Pollen is the primary source of dietary protein for bees, and consuming it enables them to produce beeswax and royal jelly (more on this later).
The effects and benefits of consuming pollen are endless, according to some of the non-scientific literature on the subject. Many people report improvement of chronic problems; others claim bee pollen has cured colds, acne, male sterility, high blood pressure, ulcers, and nervous and endocrine disorders. However, the benefits reported are usually a result of personal experience rather than from scientific studies.
The only long-term, reliable measures on the medicinal effect of pollen are related to prostate problems and allergies. Clinical tests and observations in Western Europe have indicated bee pollen to be effective in treating prostate problems ranging from infections and swelling to cancer (Denis, 1966 and Ask-Upmark, 1967). Bee pollen is used therapeutically, through oral administration, to treat symptoms of hay fever and pollen sensitivity, due to its anti-inflammatory properties.
The major use of bee pollen today is as a food supplement, though its value is frequently overstated without data to back up claims. It’s often touted as a “perfect food,” though its low content or absence of fat-soluble vitamins make that a debatable claim. Consuming bee pollen is considered beneficial; just don’t stake your life on the manufacturer’s claims.
When considering bee pollen as a food supplement or medicine, it’s important to know that pollen from each bee colony is different – pollen from one part of the world is always different from that of another – and no one pollen type can contain all the beneficial attributes of “pollen” in general.
Royal jelly is a white, fluid, paste-like substance secreted from glands in the heads of worker bees and fed to all bee larvae in the colony. It’s composed of 67 percent water, 121⁄2 percent crude protein, 11 percent simple sugars, 5 percent fatty acids, and trace minerals, enzymes and vitamin C.
Royal jelly is produced by nurse bees when they are 5 to 15 days old; they feed royal jelly to all bee larvae for the first three days of the larvae’s existence, but after three days only the female larvae designated to be queens are fed large quantities of royal jelly, which begins a series of molecular events – an epigenetic modification of DNA – resulting in ovary development. The queen then matures into a large, fertile and long-living bee, and she continues to be fed royal jelly exclusively throughout her life.
Royal jelly is harvested from queen cells at 4 days of age. It can only be collected from queen cells because an excess amount is deposited there to feed the queen (she literally “swims” in it), and worker larvae cells consume the royal jelly immediately as it is fed to them.
Royal jelly has a pungent odour and a sour flavour. It has antimicrobial and antibacterial qualities, similar to other hive products. Research has suggested that royal jelly may stimulate the growth of neuroglial cells and in turn may help treat Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases. It’s also gotten some traction for lowering cholesterol, suppressing the vascularization of tumours, fighting inflammatory diseases, and treating wounds.
Royal jelly, as intended for humans, is classified as a dietary supplement. The use of royal jelly is mainly linked to its reputation for being a stimulant and its inherent therapeutic value. However, the data required for classifying it as a medicine are not sufficient.
Honeybee venom is produced by two glands associated with the sting apparatus of worker bees. Its production increases during the first two weeks of the adult worker’s life and reaches a maximum when the worker bee becomes involved in hive defence and foraging. It diminishes as the bee gets older. The queen bee’s production of venom is highest on emergence, which allows her to be prepared for immediate battles with other queens.
When a bee stings, it does not normally inject all of the 0.15 to 0.3 mg of venom held in a full venom sac (Schumacher et al., 1989 and Crane 1990, respectively). Only when it stings an animal with skin as tough as ours will it lose its sting – and with it the whole sting apparatus, including the venom sac, muscles and the nerve centre. These nerves and muscles however keep injecting venom for a while, or until the venom sac is empty. The loss of such a considerable portion of its body is almost always fatal to the bee.
Used in small doses however, bee venom can be of benefit in treating a large number of ailments. This therapeutic value was already known to many ancient civilizations.
Honeybee venom is a clear, odourless, watery liquid. When coming into contact with mucous membranes or eyes, it causes considerable burning and irritation. Dried venom takes on a light yellow colour and some commercial preparations are brown, thought to be due to oxidation of some of the venom proteins. Venom contains a number of very volatile compounds which are easily lost during collection.
88% of venom is water. The glucose, fructose and phospholipid contents of venom are similar to those in bee’s blood (Crane, 1990). At least 18 pharmacologically active components have been described, including various enzymes, peptides and amines.
Sources: FAO, American Apitheraphy Society
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