The Story of Propolis

What is Propolis?


In preparing to write this article, it became apparent that the subject of propolis is as complex as the substance itself. To appreciate propolis, in modern day terms, one must realize what propolis meant to ancient cultures. To understand the significance of propolis to man, one must first understand its significance to bees. And to understand what propolis means to bees, one must understand what its raw material, tree resin, means to trees. Finally, to decipher what propolis means to science, and how propolis fits into the framework of biological science and the eco-system, we must first understand, fundamentally, the process and the goals of scientific research. We have tried to give an overview of all of these topics in this article.

Propolis in the Beehive


The word PROPOLIS is reputed to have been coined by Aristotle, from the Greek words pro (before) and polis (city), meaning, Before The City, or Defender Of The City. In his writings, Aristotle showed a remarkably accurate and detailed knowledge of propolis. The name, Defender Of The City², is a very appropriate term to describe the role of propolis in the beehive.


Bees use propolis to virtually encase the inside of the hive. It is used to caulk and seal every crack, and a very thin coat of propolis is spread over the surfaces of the honeycomb cells, inside and out. This is important for the prevention of infection in the honeycomb. Propolis is used to sterilize the honeycomb cells that contain the larvae, as well as the cells that store the honey and bee pollen. Propolis is also used extensively at the entrance of the hive to form an elaborate, winding tunnel. Bees literally have to crawl through a tight tunnel of propolis to enter and leave the hive. In this way, bees are cleansed of microbes as they enter the hive, and the sterility of the beehive is maintained. In fact, the beehive is the most sterile environment found in nature. The fact that this structure, located in the wild, and full of food and organisms, can be kept free of disease and infection is quite remarkable. In very real terms, propolis functions as the natural defense and immune system of the beehive.


Bees collect tree resin for propolis, just as they collect pollen and honey for food. Although it is still a matter of debate, research indicates that the chemical structure of resin is altered by the bees secretions during the collection process. Bees work the resin with their front legs, while adding saliva and beeswax to the mixture. The saliva and other secretions are catalysts for biochemical changes within the propolis. The resin is passed to their back legs for storage in their pollen sacs. Bees then transport the resin back to the hive, where it is stored or used.


Bees show definite preferences for certain species of tree resins in their collection of propolis. It appears that bees have unerringly identified the highest quality, and most appropriate raw material to use for propolis. The bees¹ secretions then transform the resin to optimize the benefits of propolis


Propolis in History


Man has used propolis for healing since ancient times. The first known users of substances from the beehive were the Egyptians, and the preservative qualities of the beehive were well known to them. The ancient Egyptians believed that they would need their bodies in the afterlife. In order to preserve their dead bodies, they would melt down a whole hive, including the honey, wax and propolis, and use the mixture to coat bandages used in their mummification process.  The Egyptians, Sumerians, Babylonians and Assyrians used another method of preservation for burial. This involved immersing the dead bodies in large jars of honey and sealing them with wax. On his deathbed, the Greek conqueror Alexander the Great ordered himself to be buried in this way. His teacher, Aristotle, studied and wrote extensively about propolis, and was the first to specifically identify propolis as a substance. Aristotle also wrote the first scientific study of the honeybee.



The Greek physician, Hippocrates (460-377 BC), who is considered to be the father of modern medicine, recognized the healing properties of propolis. Hippocrates prescribed propolis for different types of ailments. The Greeks were also the first to develop beehives, and honey, as agricultural products. The Romans further developed beekeeping and expanded on the knowledge and benefits of propolis. Pliny the Elder, the famous Roman researcher and natural historian, showed a detailed understanding of propolis in the beehive. He also was well versed in the applications of propolis.


The Raw Materials of Propolis, Tree Resins

The story of propolis is much different than the story of bee pollen. Propolis contains many of the same polyphenols found in bee pollen, but in much higher quantities. However, while bees eat pollen for food, they do not eat propolis. We have discussed how the nutritional value of pollen was driven by the symbiotic relationship of plants and bees. However, we find that propolis is not the product of a similar symbiotic relationship. While bees benefit from collecting tree resins for propolis, trees do not benefit from the bees collection of propolis in return. The beneficial properties of tree resins have evolved for the trees, although the bees were quick to discover and use tree resins for their own uses.


Therefore, to understand propolis, one must first understand tree resin, and what tree resin does as its primary function. We have already seen that propolis functions as the immune system of the beehive. It is not surprising, then, that tree resin functions as the immune system of the trees.


Historically, indigenous people have used various tree resins as natural medicines for health and healing. In the Christian religion, two of the three gifts from the wise men to the infant Jesus were tree resins, Frankincense and Myrrh. Modern science has since validated both as valuable for health and healing. Tribes of the rain forest use numerous tree resins for a variety of treatments. Romans also used resins for medicinal purposes. The Roman natural historian, Pliny the Elder, wrote extensively about preventing wine from turning to vinegar by adding tree resins. Pine, cedar, and often terebinth (which Pliny described as the Best And Most Elegant resin)--were added to Roman wines for this purpose. Modern researchers have shown that certain tree resins, like propolis, can kill bacteria, thereby protecting organic compounds from degradation.


When physical damage occurs to trees, then tree resin, or sap, floods into the area and seals it off. In this way, the damaged tissues are protected from infection from bacteria or fungi. Similarly, when parasites, such as bark beetles, attack a tree, tree resin flows into the wounded area and kills the insects and their larvae. Tree resins and waxes are secreted onto the surfaces of sensitive tissues, such as delicate new buds, to protect against harmful ultraviolet radiation. Tree resin screens out harmful radiation, and protects the buds from damage. Ultraviolet radiation also causes free radicals, and tree resin acts as antioxidants to smother the free radicals before they can cause damage. How does tree resin work to provide these protective benefits? Researchers look to polyphenols as the answer.


Tree resins typically have high concentrations of polyphenols. Many polyphenols have been shown to be anti microbial against bacteria, fungi and viruses. These actions are essential to the immune defense of the tree. Polyphenols have also been shown to play important roles in the trees biochemical response to stress, disease and physical damage. Polyphenols are also present in high concentrations in developing leaves and buds. Their presence there indicates that in addition to their protective roles, they may also play a role in the development and maturation of plant tissues. The chart to the right shows electron microscope scans of bioflavonoids in embryonic tissues of tree buds. Photo A, Granular GP and Vacuolar VP polyphenols. Tonoplast, T. Nucleus, N. Photo B, Vacuolar polyphenols VP, cell wall, CW. Photo C, Droplike DP polyphenols. Cytoplasmic Membrane, M.


Practical Applications of Propolis


Polyphenols are being identified as the class of nutrients responsible for the most significant health-promoting effects. Consequently, products featuring isolated polyphenols are common in the health food market in the U.S. and elsewhere. Examples include products and ingredients such as Pycnogenol, Soy Isoflavones, Lipoic Acid, Lignans, Quercetin, Rutin, Anthocyanins, and Proanthocyanidins. Sales of these products is driven by published research. Individually, these polyphenols provide substantial benefits. However, propolis is a much different product. No other substance in nature provides the broad range of polyphenols that propolis provides. In fact, propolis polyphenols do not need to be isolated and concentrated, because they exist naturally in a concentrated form. And the broad spectrum of polyphenols means that the benefits are not restricted to the benefits of a single polyphenol, but, rather, offers the combination of a natural mixture of different polyphenols.


The polyphenols of propolis include many compounds that researchers are excited about. Propolis also contains many compounds that have not been identified yet or studied by science, e.g. non-polyphenolics. (Please see below.) Researchers are being challenged, however, because they are beginning to notice that what is significant with respect to the activities of propolis is the combined activity of the polyphenols, or the synergy. A study from Bulgaria, published in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology, 64 (1999) 235-240, analyzed propolis from twelve different regions of the world. What it found was that the individual polyphenols found in different types of propolis differed radically from each other. Specific polyphenols that were considered significant in one type of propolis were virtually absent in others. Surprisingly, however, the beneficial activities were nearly the same for all propolis samples. This study suggests that specific polyphenols may be less significant than the synergistic interaction of the full spectrum of polyphenols. The conclusion that the authors draw in this study is that the individual purified polyphenols are not as powerful as the full spectrum of polyphenols in whole propolis. In fact, the researchers address exactly this point when they refer to the outcomes of past studies: [It is important to note that all investigations on the...action of individual substances, isolated from propolis, showed that not a single propolis component has an activity greater than that of the total extract] (Kumjumgiev et al., 1993; Serra Bonvehi et al., 1994).


In other words, researchers have found that if you isolate a compound from propolis it still does not outperform whole propolis, no matter how high a concentration is used.  The effect of whole propolis is greater than the sum of its parts. The modes of action of propolis is proving to be more than the results of single nutrients.


These studies in turn suggest that bee propolis has more nutritive value than any single polyphenol ingredient or supplement. Scientists acknowledge the existence of synergy as a powerful force of nature, but they have no means to study it. That is because too many variables in research lead to inconclusive results. Research requires single compounds. So, as tantalizing as propolis is, its complexity still defies and confounds researchers.


CC Pollen has its own Propolis extraction plant


The CC POLLEN Co. runs its own propolis extract manufacturing facility. We found that the lack of quality in some commercially available propolis makes this product insufficient for our customers high standards. We created our own high-tech plant, owned and operated by the CC Pollen Co., because we found out that in order to do propolis right, you have to do it yourself. 


HIGH DESERT Propolis is available in capsules, tablets, and liquid.