I don’t remember when I first wanted to become a beekeeper. It had to be at least 10 years ago when my neighbor’s father was visiting and he gave me a beekeeping supply catalog. I had no idea that such a tiny spark would turn into a passionate flame.
As an herbalist, I have been using bee products as medicine for many years. Honey, propolis, and beeswax are all staples in my apothecary. I have often bemoaned the fact that quality, local products are so expensive to purchase and sometimes difficult to obtain. Thankfully, I am now able to harvest from my own hives.
Properties of Honey
Honey is the mainstay of every beehive. It is the main food source for the bees. Each spring the worker bees forage to find nectar. The nectar is held in the bees’ honey stomach where it is mixed with enzymes before being stored in the comb of the hive. The bees fan the nectar to reduce the water content of the honey before it is capped off with beeswax.
It has long been known that honey is a healing substance. In his book Herbal Antibiotics, Stephen Buhner expounds on the constituents found in honey.
Honey contains (among other things) a complex assortment of enzymes, organic acids, esters, antibiotic agents, trace minerals, proteins, carbohydrates, hormones, and antimicrobial compounds. One pound of the average honey contains 1333 calories (compared with white sugar at 1748 calories), 1.4 grams of protein, 23 milligrams of calcium, 73 milligrams of phosphorus, 4.1 milligrams of iron, 1 milligram of niacin, and 16 milligrams of vitamin C, and vitamin A, beta carotene, the complete complex of B vitamins, vitamin D, vitamin E, vitamin K, magnesium, sulfur, chlorine, potassium, iodine, sodium, copper, manganese, high concentrations of hydrogen peroxide, and formic acid… and the list goes on. Honey contains more than 75 different compounds! Many of the remaining substances in honey are so complex (4-7 percent of the honey) that they have yet to be identified.
I look at this list and my heart just praises the Lord! How magnificently He has provided for our nutritional and medicinal needs with the work of the tiny honey bee.
As you look at this list, you see that there is a broad spectrum of nutritional components. But notice what he says at the end of the paragraph, 4-7 percent of the substances in honey have yet to be identified. After much research on the subject, I truly believe that many of these unidentified substances are medicinal plant compounds that are being gathered from each plant the bee visits.
Medicinal Uses of Honey
Researchers have found that all honey shows some level of antimicrobial activity and can inhibit the growth of a wide range of bacteria, viruses, fungi, and protozoa. The strength of the antimicrobial activity often depends on the type of honey. Honey is categorized by floral type according to the levels of pollen found in the honey. If the bees are visiting stronger medicinal plants, the honey will have stronger antimicrobial properties.
Honey has been used to successfully treat many different bacterial infections including staph, strep, H. pylori (bacteria causing peptic ulcers and gastritis), E. coli, Salmonella, and even some antibiotic-resistant strains such as MRSA (Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus). Honey also speeds the healing process of viral lesions caused by HSV and HPV and significantly slows the growth of Candida spp. fungi.
Because of the high viscosity level of honey, it lends itself well to the treatment of skin disorders, wounds, and infections. The honey serves as an osmotic amphoteric; drawing moisture out of the wound and drying out microorganism yet keeping the wound from drying out. Honey also serves as a vulnerary and accelerates wound healing. It is perhaps one of the best treatments for burns as it facilitates the proliferation of new skin cell growth. Honey can also be used topically to treat ulcers, bed sores, eczema, acne, and dermatitis.
Lemon and Honey Tea
My favorite way to use honey as a medicine is a simple lemon and honey tea. My children love this and will readily drink it anytime they have a sore throat, cold, or flu. To make the tea, take one cup of hot water and add the juice of one freshly squeezed lemon. Add a generous amount of raw honey to taste.
Herbal Infused Honey
While the honey does contain plant constituents, infusing the honey with herbs increases the medicinal value of the honey. Honey can be infused with many different plant varieties. Some of my favorites include thyme, bee balm, elderberries, and garlic.
Oxymels are a mixture of herbs extracted in a vinegar and honey base. They can be used as nutritional supplements (the vinegar helps to extract vitamins and minerals from the herbs) or in acute situations such as colds and flu’s. Using warming aromatic herbs such as horseradish, garlic, and cayenne peppers intensifies the healing properties of the honey and is a great way to bring relief to inflamed sinuses.
Electuaries are an old-fashioned way to deliver herbs to a hard-to-reach location such as the throat and to increase compliance when taking unpleasant tasting herbs. The herbs are ground to a powder and mixed with raw honey. The mixture is then rolled into little balls and flattened into pastilles. After drying, these little treats can be used as a lozenge to abate coughing and sore throats.
More Than Honey
While most of us associate honey with beehives, there really is so much more to the hive. Like I mentioned before, I also use propolis, beeswax, and pollen in my medicine toolkit. These items are a little less known but are exceptional items to use for medicine. Because they are not familiar to everyone, I would like to take some time to explain the mechanics of a beehive and the products created by the bees.
I am in love with all of the wonderful healing foods and medicines we have because of the bees. These included royal jelly, bee pollen, honey, and propolis, which are at the top of my list of natural medicines, with healing powers above any I have ever witnessed.
Donnie Yance, Adaptogens in Medical Herbalism
Beeswax is the substance used to build the structure of the hive. Beeswax is secreted as a liquid substance from the abdomen of the worker bees. The wax solidifies once it comes in contact with air. The bees then use their mouths to mold the wax into hexagonal cells which collectively form the honeycomb. These cells house the bees’ food staples, honey and pollen. When bees go out to forage, they collect both nectar and pollen from flowers. The nectar is made into honey and the pollen is eaten as a source of protein for the bees.
The comb also provides a brood chamber to facilitate the rearing of new bees. Queen bees lay one egg in each cell. After hatching, the bee will go through both the larva and pupa stages in the cell before emerging as an adult bee.
The production of beeswax requires the consumption of 7 pounds of honey on average for every pound of beeswax produced. Beeswax is a precious commodity and is recycled and reused by the bees once it has been made.
Propolis is a sticky substance made by the bees from plant resins mixed with enzymes from the bees, pollen, and beeswax. This resinous mixture is used by the bees to seal up the hive. This helps keep foreign invaders, such as small hive beetles or dangerous microbes, at bay.
Properties of Beeswax
Although I have been using beeswax for years to make medicinal salves, I only recently discovered that the wax in and of itself possesses many therapeutic qualities. It shouldn’t be surprising given the fact that the beeswax is a secretion from the honeybee’s body. Long thought to be an inert wax substance, it is now known that beeswax contains many essential fatty acids, fatty alcohols, and volatile substances.
These constituents confirm the historical use of beeswax as a skin enhancer. The lipids provide an emollient barrier locking moisture in and keep pathogens out without clogging pores. Some of the same antimicrobial properties found in other bee products are present in the beeswax making it ideal for use against acne, eczema, diaper rash and other skin irritations, especially when used synergistically with other bee products.
Although there are many other claims regarding the medicinal use of beeswax, the human digestive system doesn’t break down the wax well enough for the body to utilize the components. Studies have been done on the medicinal use of beeswax in lowering cholesterol and in treating fatty liver disease. Both have yielded positive results, however, extracts from the beeswax were used to conduct the study rather than beeswax in its natural state.
Properties of Pollen
Many years ago I had a friend whose son suffered from terrible allergies each spring. I remember being so surprised when she bought local bee pollen to ease his symptoms. After seeing the pollen work so well for allergies, I just assumed it was due to something akin to homeopathy. Like cures like. The body was fed small amounts of the object it rejected so that it became accustomed to it and was not as bothered by it. This may be the case, but I now see how mighty powerful bee pollen truly is as a medicinal substance.
Bee pollen is a mixture of pollen collected from many different sources mixed with enzymes from the bee, stored in a cell and covered by a small amount beeswax and honey. The mixture then ferments and is preserved in the cell.
The fermented mixture contains over 250 constituents including proteins and essential amino acids, carbohydrates, lipids and fatty acids, phenolic compounds including quercetin, provitamin A, vitamins E, D, B1, B2, B6, and C, pantothenic acid (B5), nicotinic acid, folic acid, biotin, rutin, inositol, and minerals including calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, sodium, potassium, iron, copper, zinc, manganese, silicon, and selenium.
This unbelievable combination of substances is considered by many to possess adaptogenic qualities. According to Adaptogens in Medical Herbalism, “adaptogen refers to the nonspecific, endocrine-regulating, immune-modulating effects of certain plants [or substance] that increase a person’s ability to maintain optimal balance in the face of physical or emotional stress.”
It is clear from the list above that the substances that make up bee pollen contain many of the vital nutrients needed for optimal health. These same substance are anti-inflammatory, hypolipidemic, hepatoprotective, and detoxifying. Bee pollen is also an antihistamine. Recent studies have revealed that bee pollen shows positive signs as an antidepressant, especially in cases where there is a lack of energy.
Properties of Propolis
I have been an herbalist for many years, but only recently became a beekeeper. I remember attending one of our local beekeeper guild meetings, excited to ask questions about all these wonderful bee products I had been using for years. Imagine my disappointment when I asked a fellow beekeeper if he sold the propolis from his hives and he replied, “That sticky stuff? I don’t mess with it if I can help it!” He didn’t know that he was missing out on one of the best antiseptic and antimicrobial powerhouses in natural medicine!
As with the other bee products, propolis contains over 300 constituents including resins, wax, volatile oils, pollen, and other organic compounds. The flavanones, flavones, and phenolic acids present in propolis kill off many destructive microorganisms including bacteria, viruses, fungi, and protozoa.
I personally use propolis as part of my infection fighting protocols. It works exceptionally well when it comes into contact with mucous membranes. I like to mix propolis tincture with goldenseal tincture and a saline solution for stubborn sinus infections. It can also be used in the mouth for ulcerations, abscesses, and sore throats. Used in the vagina as a rinse, it helps fight the bacteria that cause bacterial vaginosis while leaving the good bacteria to join the fight. Propolis has been shown to have anti-inflammatory, antitumoral, hepatoprotective, antidiabetic, and immunomodulatory actions. I would have to agree with Donnie Yance and say that if I were stranded on a desert island and could have only one natural medicine, propolis would be it.
Although, if I were stranded I would pray to be blessed with an entire beehive. As you can see, the medicinal blessings that are provided through a tiny insect are beyond amazing. An entire apothecary is located within the beehive!
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