What Is Propolis?


Propolis - pro- "for", -polis "the city"

Along with pollen, nectar, and water, honey bees collect resins from plants and trees. The bees load these sticky resins into the pollen baskets on their hind legs and carry them back to the hive. Once they enter the hive, we call these resins propolis. Pro- means for, or in front of, and -polis means the city, and indeed propolis is used to protect the “city” of bees.

Propolis can be used to smooth rough surfaces and seal crevices, which allows the colony to control airflow and maintain homeostasis inside the hive. Propolis has also been found to have antimicrobial properties. When a colony is sick, bees collect extra propolis to fight off infection. In this way, propolis use by honey bees can be considered an example of social immunity: a collective behavior that benefits the health of the colony as a whole.

In the Minnesota, honey bees collect resins mostly from Populus tree species such as the Cottonwood tree and the Balsam Poplar.

Honey bees aren’t the only bees to use resins in their nest. Many species of solitary bees use resins to line the small cavities where they lay their eggs. Stingless bees, a diverse group of social, honey-producing bees found in tropical areas, also incorporate propolis into their nest environment.

People have taken advantage of the medicinal properties of propolis for ages, using propolis tinctures to treat coughs and colds, and for a variety of other ailments. However, propolis has also long been considered a sticky inconvenience, gumming up beekeepers’ equipment and spreading its stickiness everywhere. However, as beekeepers and researchers learn more about the importance of propolis to bee health, beekeepers are developing new strategies to invite propolis back into the colony environment. See the propolis research page for more information!

What is the Difference Between Honey and Propolis?

Both honey and propolis are produced by bees for use in the hive but propolis is a kind of sealant or caulk that eliminates small gaps or open holes that measure approximately 0.2 inches (six millimeters) or less with beeswax used to fill larger openings. Bees collect resinous sap from trees or other sources and mix it with wax to make propolis, which is typically dark brown and tacky but can harden in cold temperatures.

In contrast to propolis, honey is a liquid bee food source made from flower nectar via regurgitation that is stored in the hive’s wax honeycombs. Honey is commonly consumed by humans and is sweet. Both byproducts are known to have antibiotic properties and serve various medicinal purposes.

Although it was initially assumed that bees made and used propolis to protect the hive from exposure to rain and cold, it is now known that the sealant serves a series of purposes. Propolis can make a hive more sound and stable as a structure, prevent excess vibration within it, reduce the number of entrances thus making it easier to secure the colony, and prevent bacterial and fungal growth. In addition, bees use propolis to safely seal away any waste products, dead insects or small animals that cannot be removed via the hive entrances. Bees produce honey to be consumed as food when the weather is cold and other food sources become scarce.

Honey and propolis are often used and marketed as traditional or alternative medicines, but the former is believed to have antibiotic, anti-inflammatory and antiseptic properties. The composition and properties of honey and propolis depend on the geographic location of the hive, the species of bee, and the types of trees and flowers from which the bees collect the resin and nectar. Honey is often consumed in liquid form while propolis can be taken in liquid form when a few drops are added to a glass of water or other beverage, as a chewing gum, lozenge, cream, tincture or solid piece that can be dissolved in the mouth. Individuals who are allergic to bees should not consume honey and propolis without speaking to a medical professional beforehand.

Practitioners of alternative or natural medicine may prescribe honey and propolis for a variety of reasons. Honey, when dissolved in tea or warm water, is considered by many to be an effective remedy for sore throat and cough. Propolis is believed to be an effective treatment for skin burns and inflammation and has shown potential as an inhibitor of tumor growth. Some studies have demonstrated that propolis can be effective against certain herpes viruses, parasitic infections, canker sores, colds, stomach ulcers and rheumatic diseases.

Propolis has been of great interest to those in the dental industry due to some studies that suggest that it can inhibit some oral diseases and infections and reduce plaque and dental pain when used as a mouthwash. In general, the scientific evidence regarding the effectiveness of propolis is considered to be unclear by many mainstream medical professionals.

What Is Propolis?

Bees are industrious little miracles of nature. They’re the sole source of delicious golden honeycomb and amazingly versatile beeswax. However, these talented insects have so much more up their tiny sleeves. Scientists, dietitians, medical professionals, and even cosmetics manufacturers now rely on the other substances they produce.

A special substance known aspropolis, from the ancient words for “entrance to” and “large city,” is found sealing up tiny cracks and outer entryways in a hive. Like beeswax, it’s made from a combination of naturally-gathered components — in this case, resins from evergreen needle trees – and substances created within the gathering bee’s body. It’s a valuable component in many health supplements and consumer products, though admittedly a little trickier to gather than honey or wax. Sometimes referred to as “bee glue,” the bees may use propolis as a hardworking spackle-like substance for their hives. Humans have found fantastic uses for propolis as well.

In this article, we’ll explore the rich and fascinating history of this incredible bee by-product.

The Propolis Process

Much like the honey, propolis is derived through a gathering and processing method.

Propolis has antibacterial and anti-fungal properties.(1) It’s little wonder, given how concentrated it is! The end result of a great deal of work by both Mother Nature and her bees, it’s the lengthy gathering and mixing process that gives it its characteristic stickiness. Roughly half of the propolis is made up of the resins gathered from evergreen and other resin-producing trees, about a third is made of beeswax, pollen, essential oils, and other ingredients comprise the rest.

Within the hive, propolis production will be used to smooth out small cracks and leaks, complementing the beeswax that would be used to plug larger gaps. Propolis’ name is coined from its tendency to be used around the outer edges of the hive as well as the entrance. Because the inside of a hive needs to stay warm and moist for the sake of the hatching eggs and the health of the worker bees, drafts need to be sealed anywhere they appear. This creates a cozy hermetic-like environment that supports the health of the hive’s interior.

Propolis As Protectant

In addition to its “spackle” qualities, the antibacterial properties of the propolis keep infections and bacteria from foraging intruders — mice, other insects, and so on — from invading the hive. This method is so efficient, propolis lends part of its name to the medical term for anything that offers protection against disease — prophylactic.

In ancient Egypt, observation of the propolis entombment of hive invaders led to mummification techniques. Revered bodies of pharaohs would be prepared, wrapped in linen, and coated in wax to keep decay at bay for the dearly departed and putrefaction from harming the living.(2)

While the origins may be a bit grim, the takeaway is that propolis is excellent for keeping diseases and harmful bacteria at bay. In fact, supplements are often used in pill or capsule form, with the propolis taken by users that feel a cold coming on or that telltale stubborn tickle in the back of their throat. The propolis helps create an inhospitable environment in the body for those microscopic invaders, supporting the body’s natural immune system while it works to fight them off.

Have Propolis, Will Travel

Like honey, propolis ingredients will vary widely depending on which hive it is harvested from. Because it is derived directly from local plants, trees, and flowers, the bee pollen and natural oils that create the propolis will vary in color and composition. Some propolis has been found to have stronger beneficial effects for this very reason – studies examining propolis from hives in Brazil have found it may even prevent cavities from forming and spreading in human teeth.(3)

Propolis in honeycomb may ease symptoms of seasonal allergies. Each bit of propolis acts as a sort of micro-dose of flora, helping the body adjust to the common allergens found in pollen. This benefit is easiest for the body to unlock when it’s consumed as part of the whole, unadulterated honeycomb. While present only in small amounts in a chunk of honeycomb, propolis will still boost the similar beneficial healing ingredients in the surrounding honey, wax, and (depending on the quality of the comb), potentially even a bit of royal jelly.

Propolis is more than a side effect of honey production by bees – it’s a powerful, versatile, helpful, and healing ingredient all on its own. Used by ancient pharaohs and modern medicine alike, it’s beginning to make appearances in everything from mouthwash to skin products as more propolis benefits are discovered. So the next time you need a little boost to your immune system and want to enjoy some natural energy, why not pop a bite of honeycomb and give the healing properties of propolis a try?


Eric Carter