Bees: Medicine from the Hive

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Definition: hive [haiv] n. A large group of people buzzing about everything bee related, swapping hints and tips, rubbing elbows and listening to expert entomologists with great reverence, concern and interest for the world's bee population.

The Fifth Annual Bee Symposium, held in March in Sebastopol, CA (Sonoma County), was a hive of activity and learning. The funds raised from the event went to various pollinator support organizations, including XERCES, the Foundation for the Preservation of Honey Bees, and Partners for Sustainable Pollination. Present were numerous professional beekeepers, hobbyists, entomologists, and citizen scientists.

Organized by BeeKind, the Sebastopol-based bee everything store, the theme was "Medicine from the Hive." Honey, bee pollen, propolis, and many other bee products have been used for centuries as tonics and health enhancers. Apitherapy is the medicinal use of bee products.

Frederique Keller, an acupuncturist, herbalist, homeopath, and beekeeper, spoke about the medicinal uses of bee products. Many people are familiar with the anti-bacterial and antioxidant powers of honey, but Frederique went into greater depth on other therapeutic agents:

”¢ Bee Pollen: is flower pollen collected by the bees, the colors reflecting the variety of the flowers visited, usually mostly gold and yellow grains. The pollen is picked from the male part of the flower and packed into pollen sacks on the bees’ legs. Here, the "dust" is mixed with bee enzymes, which is what sets it apart from plain flower pollen. Bee pollen is harvested at the hive by the beekeeper, who collects it in a little catch tray. If it is harvested sustainably, enough pollen is left for the bees to eat. Bee pollen is 20 percent protein and is used as an energy supplement, hormone balancer, and antioxidant. Frederique recommended that bee pollen should always be mixed with a protein, such as yogurt, to break down the enzymes and access its full benefits.

”¢ Royal jelly is a gelatinous secretion from the glands of worker honeybees that is fed to the Queen bee. Royal jelly is all she eats and it gives her the sustenance to lay 20,000 eggs a day for 5-7 years. Humans use royal jelly as an energy tonic, for healing, and to enhance sports performance. If you decide to use royal jelly, keep in mind that it is highly perishable and should be purchased from a highly reputable source that guarantees it is harvested sustainably—royal jelly is the Queen's food and without a queen you have no hive.

”¢ Beebread is another ancient product that has re-emerged as a health supplement. It is made of fermented raw honey and ground bee pollen. The term “beebread” refers to the pollen stored in combs by bees.

Ӣ Propolis is a resin that bees collect from trees. When you open a hive it is the substance that looks like papery flakes of varnish. Bees use it to seal their hive. Propolis flakes are taken and made into a tincture that is used as a folk remedy for sore throats and bacterial infections. Proof of its anti-viral and anti-bacterial properties are still elusive because bees collect resin from so many different sources that controlled clinical trials are difficult to conduct.

”¢ Bee venom therapy is the controlled use of a bee's sting for medicinal uses. Why would you want to do that you may ask? Well, anecdotally, beekeepers do not get arthritis, so bee venom therapy developed around self-reported improvements in a number of conditions including rheumatism, chronic pain, arthritis, and multiple sclerosis. The practitioner holds a bee in a tweezer, or her fingers, and then taps on it so it will sting the patient in the desired spot. Bee stingers are barbed and stick into our mammalian skin. The bee subsequently dies. Bee venom, also called apitoxin, is a bitter, colorless liquid that contains components of Protease-inhibitors and anticoagulants. As anyone who has ever been stung can tell, you, it causes local inflammation. Patients undergoing apitherapy may receive between 2-80 stings a day and some have reported remarkable results. Clinical trials have been approved for an apitoxin drugs to treat osteoarthritis.

Apitherapy products are undergoing various studies and trials to substantiate their many health claims. At this time, neither the Food and Drug Administration or the European Food Safety Authority have not approved their use for medical purposes. These are ancient natural products and their benefits are anecdotal.

If you decide to use bee products it is prudent to check with your doctor or health care provider first; one percent of the population is allergic to bee stings and bee products contain flower components that can also cause allergic reactions.

Colony Collapse Disorder

After all the talk about what bees can do for us, University of Minnesota entomologist Dr. Marla Spivak spoke about health care for the bees. Dr. Spivak is a MacArthur Fellow and Distinguished McKnight Professor in entomology. She introduced her eye-opening research on how bees use propolis to support their own immune systems.

Current studies show that Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) may be caused by a variety of environmental stresses including:

  • Poor nutrition - lack of forage and plant diversity
  • Pesticides
  • GMO crops - produce an insecticide Bt toxin
  • Migratory beekeeping practices
  • Viruses, mites, and fungi - bees are unable to fight infections and parasites if any two of the above stresses exist for the hive

Dr. Spivak studied a wild bee hive, one that had been made in an old tree, and found that feral bees (not those kept in hive boxes by beekeepers) completely shellac the inside of their hives with propolis which acts like a sealant against predators, parasites, and reduces in-hive microbes.

Bee keepers have often viewed propolis, or “bee glue,” as a bit of an annoyance since bees tend to seal anything less than a 1/8 inch wide, such as the hive lid. It was believed that they used this to control hive temperature. In Dr. Spivak’s study, hive interiors were painted with two different kinds of propolis derived from different sources, she found evidence that the quality and source of the tree resin from which the bees made their propolis was a big indicator in the hive’s survivability.

Bees are amazing insects in their organization, cooperation, sacrifice, and industriousness. If you only take one gift from the hive—say, a teaspoon of honey—know that it is the life’s work of 12 bees who travelled a five-mile radius of their hive and viewed it with compound eyes of 7,000 facets. Appreciate it and enjoy it.

Here's how gardeners can encourage forage and habitat for honey and native bees this spring:

  • Plant native plants. Visit your local native plant nursery or check the Pollinator Partnership’s guide for a regional selection of suggested plants.
  • To encourage wildlife and a variety of pollinators, leave out some old wood or install a Mason Beenesting box.
  • Leave open ground. Gardeners know the importance of mulching plants to conserve water and suppress weeds; it also benefits native  bees to leave some open ground.

If you are not a gardener, you can still help bees by doing the following:

  • Save swarms: don’t call an exterminator, call a  beekeeper.
  • Support organic farming and agriculture that doesn’t use herbicides.
  • Support local  beekeepers by buying local honey and hive products that are sustainably harvested.

The Pedigree of Honey

Does not concern the Bee –

A Clover, any time, to him,

Is Aristocracy

- Emily Dickinson

Note: this article should not be construed as medical advice. Always consult your doctor or health care provider before introducing a new health or fitness regime.

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