One Friday afternoon, my right side lower gum started hurting, way in the back of my mouth near the last molar. I sensed that an infection was setting in, and by early evening the area was swollen and painful. I began to wonder if a weekend visit to the dentist was likely. Then I remembered a small bottle of propolis tincture, which I had stashed in the back of a kitchen cabinet. I took a cotton swab, dipped it in the tincture, and then dabbed it on my swollen gum. I repeated the treatment two more times over the next half hour. By the third treatment, I could already notice an improvement. The pain was subsiding and the swelling had started to go down. When I woke up on Saturday morning, the gum was well on the way to recovery. By Monday, I had crossed "dentist" off of my To Do list.
So what is propolis? If you have ever seen a beekeeper checking his beehives, then you will see that he uses a small flat bar (called a beekeeper's tool) to pry apart the bee boxes. In cold weather, you can actually hear a cracking sound as the boxes separate. In the summer, there is no sound, but it looks like a thin line of reddish-brown chewing gum is holding the boxes together. This gummy substance is called propolis, and it is a critical part of a healthy hive.
Bees make propolis by gathering resin and sap from the leaves, buds and the bark of plants and trees (primarily poplars and conifers). These saps and resins are then carried back to the hive in the bees' pollen baskets on their hind legs. When they arrive home, the stuff is so sticky that they need help from other bees to unload it. Then, these saps and resins are blended with enzymes, wax, honey and pollen to make propolis.
Propolis is used primarily as a construction adhesive (hence the nickname "bee glue"). It is packed into cracks and crevices in the hive to seal the bee boxes together, which keeps out rain throughout the year and cold air in the winter. But propolis does more than just hold a hive together. Propolis has significant anti-bacterial, anti-fungal and anti-viral properties. By sealing all of the cracks with propolis, the bees are also creating a highly effective barrier against germs and bad bacteria. This barrier makes the inside of the hive antiseptic. People have known about these properties for centuries, and have used propolis for help with health conditions such as gum disease and inflammations, canker sores, oral surgery recovery, cold sores, skin lesions and sore throats.
The ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans studied and used propolis for a variety of medicinal purposes. The word origin is Greek - pro meaning before, and polis meaning the city - because propolis was used to surround and defend the bee's city (i.e., the beehive). While propolis was used as a natural healer for centuries, it fell out of favor in much of the Western world with the rise of "modern medicine" and a turn towards synthetic medications. Recently, however, there has been a renewed interest in this complex substance. Using gas chromatography, scientists have identified over 180 different substances in propolis. These are generally divided into plant resins and balsams (50%), beeswax (30%), essential oils (10%), bee pollen (5%) and minerals, proteins and amino acids (5%).
Beginning in the late 1960's, a Danish biologist by the name of Dr. Karl Aagaard embarked on what became a 20 year study of propolis. His research and findings eventually earned him the nickname "Dr. Propolis." After observing the effects of propolis on over 50,000 patients, Dr. Aagaard concluded: "The field of influence of Propolis is extremely broad. It includes cancer, infection of the urinary tract, swelling of the throat, gout, open wounds, sinus congestion, colds, influenza, bronchitis, gastritis, diseases of the ears, periodontal disease, intestinal infections, ulcers, eczema eruptions, pneumonia, arthritis, lung disease, stomach virus, headaches, Parkinson’s disease, bile infections, sclerosis, circulation deficiencies, warts, conjunctivitis and hoarseness." In a more recent article, a team of researchers added this mouthful: "Propolis is reputed to have antiseptic, antibacterial, antimycotic, astringent, spasmolytic, anti-inflammatory, anaesthetic, antioxidant, antitumoural, antifungal, antiulcer, anticancer, and immunomodulatory effects." Kuropatnicki, et al., "Historical Aspects of Propolis Research in Modern Times," Evidence-Based Complimentary and Alternative Medicine (2013).
Propolis is collected by scraping it off of the bee boxes with the hive tool. Typically, it is then frozen to make it hard and brittle, and then either crushed or ground into small bits and pieces. From this point, the most popular use is to make a tincture by mixing the propolis with a strong grain alcohol (such as Everclear). After a week or two of seeping, the solution is ready to use. The tincture can then be dabbed on the sore or infected area, or filtered into a small spray bottle to make a throat spray. While the strong, resinous taste takes some getting used to, propolis can be a very effective anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory remedy.