Propolis 2
Propolis : Grows On Trees, Used By Bees

I knew that this day would come – I’ve been dreading it, but I just can’t put it off any longer. I’ve got to grasp the nettle and write about propolis. Unlike most things bee-related, propolis is not a crowd-pleaser. It’s greenish-brown, it’s tacky, it’s gooey …and as if that wasn’t bad enough, as a beekeeping topic, it’s too important to omit, but too unlovely to celebrate – and is a thorough nuisance to the average beekeeper, to boot. Why now ? Well, when I was filling in the BBKA Honey Survey about beekeeping conditions in 2014, I came to the part that asks about “unusual observations from your hives” over the year. No getting around it. For me and many other beekeepers of my acquaintance, 2014 will go down as the bumper year for propolis. More’s the pity. Let’s take a step back: bees returning to their hives are carrying either nectar, pollen, water or propolis. The first three on the list are self-explanatory: but what exactly is propolis ? If you cast your mind back to springtime and touching the sticky brown outers of horse chestnut buds, then you have an idea of the adhesive properties of propolis. You also have a clue as to its muddy khaki hue and to its arboreal origins. What you cannot imagine, though, is the pervasive, gloopy, gunkiness of propolis. It does not possess a uniform, clean-cut, precision stickiness like sellotape. It’s more like melted chocolate at a five-year-old’s birthday party; the pancaked slap on a pantomime dame at the curtain-call; a mastic gun in the hands of a Sunday DIYer after a pub lunch. So how will you recognize propolis when you see it ? Like most non-specific brownish gunk, it is something which you would rather avoid, but sometimes it just happens. Propolis is drab and will stick to anything, staining clothes henna brown, gumming up the floor, getting deep under your finger-nails. The smell of propolis is resinous (unsurprisingly!) and slightly antiseptic. And it may help the inexperienced propolis-spotter to know that the sole constant which applies to all propolis is that it is soft when warm, and brittle when cold. The derivation of propolis is said to be Greek “pro” = in front of and “polis” = the town (so the literal meaning of propolis is “in front of the town”). Well, it’s nice to know that even Aristotle had his off-days. The simple reality is that propolis is mostly resin gathered from trees (don’t knock it, though, since come to think of it, so are frankincense and myrrh, which represented 2/3 of the gifts from the Three Wise Men to the infant Jesus), mixed with variable quantities of wax, essential oils and pollen. But since the admixture of these components varies from hive to hive, there is no definitive composition of propolis. For the same reason, modern medicine will not admit any demonstrable human health benefit from this non-standard, beige gunk. Indeed, expert bee-man John Chapple cautions that London propolis may not be as wholesome as the country variety, since bees are inclined to scoop up propolis-like materials, such as tar for roads or roofs, for use in their hives. So why do bees leave the hive and then come back with a trouserful of botanical toffee ? What do the bees use propolis for ? Here we are on firmer ground: propolis is demonstrably anti-fungal and anti-bacterial in the beehive. It is used by bees to disinfect their domain and to bolster the stability and security of the hive structure. So propolis keeps some things out – like wind and rain – and it keeps other things in – like a deceased honey-hungry mouse, mummified in propolis and hygienically sealed off from the bees inside the hive. Similarly, propolis is used by young house-keeper bees to polish the brood comb after young bees have emerged, slowly turning the cells conker-brown, as they prepare it for new eggs to be laid. And extending the disinfectant theme, some people even take propolis lozenges or tinctures against sore throats. Fair enough, it’s a free country. I should add that propolis has long been a constituent of the varnish used on stringed musical instruments. I did warn you at the beginning that this propolis lark was going to be pretty unrewarding. And I’d rather perform pirouettes on a pinhead than have to pen “Propolis Part Two”. So this prologue on propolis has almost run its course. We’re in sight of the finishing line and I can feel that I’m “hitting the wall“, so my apologies to any brownish gloop aficionados out there if I have left any ground uncovered. Finally, if you’ve got this far, well done ! Take a lap of honour and contemplate my Five Commandments about propolis. Firstly: avoid it at all costs. Secondly: if you can’t avoid it, wear medical-style nitrile gloves while working with it. Thirdly: to discourage your bees from propolising important surfaces in your hives, give the surface edges of brood and super boxes (and the frame-runners) a light rub with a cloth dipped in a tub of Vaseline – this will prevent the bees from gumming up the moving parts your hive. Mostly. Fourthly: Thou shalt not refer to propolis as “bee-glue“. Finally: if you were foolish enough to disobey the First and Second Commandments, the only recommended way to wash propolis stains off clothes or hive parts is to soak in a washing soda solution.

Better yet, your “Delete” tab will remove any trace of this propolis-prose from your screen at a single keystroke. Try it.

10 Replies to “Propolis”

  1. I quite like seeing lots of propolis in my hives, as I know it’s so good for the bees. Just hope I don’t get allergic to it, as a few beekeepers do, as that makes for really painful beekeeping.

    1. Yes, indeed, Emily. The bees wouldn’t gather it in if they didn’t need it. Right now though, I’m looking at an usually generous allocation of propolis in my hives and I’m anticipating some jerky first inspections next Spring, with the gummed-up frames resisting a nice clean lift ! But that’s only a minor inconvenience if the bees are happily set up for overwintering. Half-time score here: Bees 1 Beekeeper 0.

  2. Dale,

    We met at the London Honey Show this year (I was the ex Bermondsey resident) and although not an urban beekeeper I have seen an awful lot of propolis in my garden hive this year yet almost nothing in the 3 orchard hives a short distance away in the same Berkshire village. Given their normal forage will be almost identical, I reckon it’s either the strain of bee or the garden girls just miss the trees. They really are stuck up little devils!

    All the best,


    1. Hi Chris,

      As a former Bermondsey boy yourself, I’m sure that you will forgive me for imagining that your “Royal County” bees could get a little bit precious about knee-scraping, tree-climbing, sticky-mitted, propolis gathering so it’s good to her that at least your garden hive bees are tomboy enough to enjoy pitchforking the propolis into their hive.

      Seriously though, I’m sure you’re right that the strain of bees is a key factor in propolis propensity – and perhaps, in times of plentiful forage when there is a food surplus (such as we have enjoyed since July), bringing in propolis is something between a recreational activity and an insurance policy for the bees.

      Great to meet you at the LHS – and please feel free to look me up when you are back on “the manor” !

  3. We love Propolis! Just processing 40Kg (yes that’s 40Kg!) of the stuff sourced from our own bees and those from other UK Bee Farmers for our new range of skincare products coming out next year…

    1. Hi Simon,

      Excellent news – do you use those black plastic mesh screens to harvest the propolis, or is it just what comes under your hive tool ? Perhaps you could describe some of the benefits of propolis preparations on human skin ?

  4. I must be one of the few beekeepers who actually likes propolis. It makes me happy to see the gunky stuff on my hives, as I think it means the bees are hygienic and will be more resistant to disease.

    1. You are right to think those things, Emily. They wouldn’t do it, if it wasn’t absolutely crucial. Quite a lot of red propolis, too, this year, I noticed…

  5. Dale! Unlovely!! A nuisance!!! Pervasive, gloomy, gunkiness and not a precision stickiness like Sellotape!!!! I love your writing but I think you’ve lost the plot on this one! Late summer always presents us with sticky lugs and sidebars, but the smell alone makes the effort of working with it worthwhile. And any residue on hive tool and gloves can be washed away quickly in our container of washing soda solution as recommended by our friendly bee inspector! Amounts of propolis do vary from hive to hive but I noticed nothing unusual this season. Well done, Simon Cavill, for harvesting it!

    1. Hi Bill, Yes, indeed.

      I hope that I left enough room in my positioning of propolis as my least favourite hive component (relative to wax, brood, honey and bees) to allow intelligent and experienced dissention such as yours and Emily’s. I am delighted that you have both rallied to defend the admirable qualities of this necessary and olfactory hive staple. And I thought that John Chapple’s warning about the propensity of urban bees to hi-jack impure man-made propolis-like materials was an issue for urban beekeepers to consider when assessing the purity of their product for human consumption.

      To be sure, propolis is indeed an essential and complex factor in every beehive. It’s just that it has less appeal to me than the other components (wax, brood, honey and bees). Something has to be a beekeeper’s least favourite thing in the hive: mine’s propolis. My favourite’s the bees!

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