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Bees produce honey, wax, pollen and propolis, among others. Apitherapy shows us how to use these products ...
2022-04-23 09:00:00

Beehive Medicine
The Benefits of Apitherapy

Photo by Ante Hamersmit/Unsplash
Beehive Medicine
Beehive Medicine

Apitherapy takes advantage of everything that bees produce – not only honey, but also beeswax, pollen, milk, bread and propolis. The sweet truth is that that basically everything coming from beehives has a healing and beneficial effect.

Read in 6 minutes

Recipes for health are as old as the human civilization; they have been tried and tested by generations. As for honey, evidence of belief in its benefits is found in the tombs of pharaohs, where well-preserved honey products were discovered, confirming their use for medical purposes.

The only contraindication for using bee products is allergy. Their benefits, however, are countless. Honey contains over 20 substances that stimulate the immunological system. When consumed regularly, they make us healthier. At the same time, apitherapy (apis means ‘bee’ in Latin) guarantees lots of sweet pleasure.

Fluidity, or youth

A lot can be said about the various types of honey, but three basic types are distinguished by the material used for their production. The first kind of honey is made from floral nectar, the second from honeydew, and the third is a variously balanced combination of the first two.

Floral honeys are aromatic and usually light-coloured, with exceptions such as heather honey, which is reddish-brown when fluid (though clearly gelatinous) but crystallizes quickly, becoming fine-grained and yellow-orange (or brown). This kind of honey is somewhat bitter. Linden honey, when in liquid form, can be green-yellow or light amber in colour. After crystallizing, it becomes fine-grained and golden-yellow. It has a sharp taste and its aroma is reminiscent of mint.

Honey is usually made from floral nectars. We should not underappreciate multi-floral honeys. The important thing is to know their source, as good honey is made in an honest and painstaking process. Cheap honeys should raise doubts regarding quality.

Photo by Ante Hamersmit/Unsplash
Photo by Ante Hamersmit/Unsplash

Honeydew is a floral sap used as a source of protein by aphids and scale insects, which in turn enrich it with their secretions. This means that the taste, colour and aroma of honeydew honey depends on the quality of the sap and also partly on the insects’ secretions. In Europe, there are 800 species of aphids and around 250 species of scale insects, including around 40 ‘working’ in the honey industry. The fir tree is the most abundant source of honeydew in Poland, followed by linden, hazel, spruce, maple and willow. Honeydew is characteristically thicker than nectar and contains sugars, melozitose and raffinose, as well as numerous mineral elements.

The density of honey depends on the time of harvest. Those harvested early, in spring, are less dense than those from autumn. The fluidity of honey, highly appreciated by many, is an indicator of its youth, because it crumbles with time, just like people. The free-flowing liquid gradually crystallizes. This natural process occurs faster in glucose-rich honeys such as rapeseed honey, and slower in those where fructose dominates, including acacia honey. Still, it is inevitable. If you indulge in liquid honey, you can heat it up to 40°C.

How can you serve honey? One possibility is to dissolve it in a lukewarm or cold drink, postponing consumption for several or even dozens of hours, allowing the elements to permeate the solution. Another way is to eat honey raw, since this facilitates better assimilation of floral hormones, which do no dissolve in water but importantly boost the activity of the digestive system. This helps us make use of these sugars by fully utilizing their energetic value.

Let me share a hint from an old herbaria: it is supposedly a good idea to dissolve honey in a sage infusion whose bitterness is thus made less discernible. Sage, the queen of herbs, has numerous effects: it is anti-inflammatory, fungicidal, choleretic, toning and calming. The Romans even associated it with immortality and consumed it to improve their minds. The latest research demonstrates that sage can hinder ageing and helps fight Alzheimer’s disease, both when consumed directly and ingested as an infusion.

Photo by Ante Hamersmit/Unsplash
Photo by Ante Hamersmit/Unsplash

Not just honey…

Although honey remains the most popular product of bees, other wonders made by these insects are being rediscovered.

The first one is wax, used in the production of ointments, creams, crayons, paints, candles, threads, leather and wood impregnators, greases, cables and other, often surprising things. Its moistening, greasing and regenerating effects, along with the protection from sun and cold it offers, have made it an ally of human skin. As an ingredient in cosmetics or soaps, it is a potent preservative. Why? This secretion from the bee’s abdominal gland moves in liquid form through canals to the cuticle surface, where it solidifies as thin white scales used by bees to build honeycombs. One scale weighs 0.0008-0.002 grams, and every kilogram of wax contains about a million of them. The output of hives varies, some of them are capable of producing even two or three kilograms in one season (Polish hives average 300 grams).

Pollen is the second gift from bees. Gathered as food for young workers and larvae, its colour depends on the plant from which it was gathered, ranging from yellow, orange and red, to green or blue. It contains high amounts of protein and many vitamins (insect-pollinated plants providing more than wind-pollinated ones). The effect of pollen is comparable to that of antibiotics, helping with inflammations and diarrhoea, as well bringing back appetite, regulating digestion and aiding recovery from illness.

The third wonder is bee bread, produced from pollen. An iron ration for tough times, it is rich in magnesium, selenium, zinc, potassium and silicon, improving memory and concentration, as well as supporting the immune and nervous systems.

The Greek-sounding propolis is fourth. It means ‘suburb’ in ancient Greek, which supposedly refers to the way in which bees use it to extend construction in their hives. The sticky, viscous mix of resin is also known as ‘bee glue’. It lines and insulates the hive, which is crucial for regulating temperature, especially in winter. In some cases, inhabitants use it to cocoon pests that have accessed the hive, such as shrews.

At 15°C, propolis is hard, but at 36°C, it becomes soft and pliable. At 60-70°C, it acquires the consistency of thin dough, and finally melts between 80 and 104°C. It does not dissolve well in water, but does so in spirit, optimally one containing 60-70% alcohol. An indispensable part of home medicine cabinets, it is best applied as a balm. It contains micro-elements such as iron, copper, zinc and cobalt. Conditions that it helps to remedy or soothe include tonsillitis, catarrh, colds, digestive problems and the menopause. Its effect as a painkiller, known since time immemorial in folk medicine, was confirmed by studies showing that propolis works better than novocaine. Finally, it is a potent disinfectant and a remedy for burns, frostbite, bedsores and mycosis. It is also used by vets.

The fifth miracle is the bee milk secreted by the workers’ salivary glands. It plays a huge role in the life of the hive. The length of the period when it is dispensed as food is one of the factors that decides whether a larva becomes queen or worker. Bee milk contains protein, water, fats and vitamins. Its effect is bacteriostatic. In humans, it boosts immunity and reduces fatigue. Moreover, it is a source of acetylcholine, which functions as a neurotransmitter. A source of minerals, it aids the functioning of liver, as well as the muscles, kidneys and brain cells. Finally, it allegedly helps with treating mental health conditions.

Finally, there is the bee venom produced by two glands in the abdomen. Spring generations produce more of it than summer or autumn ones, but this is not an indicator of ferociousness. On the contrary, in autumn, bees sting more often. Bee venom is a bitter, sour, colourless fluid that dissolves in water and acids. It has yielded good results in treating rheumatism and arthritis. However, it is toxic and haemolytic – it destroys red blood cells. When applied by a furious bee, a single dose is not dangerous (unless the victim is allergic), as it contains on average 0.012 grams of venom. Still, people working with bees must be cautious because 200 stings can cause poisoning, while 500 can be lethal.

Photo by Leandro Fregoni/Unsplash
Photo by Leandro Fregoni/Unsplash

Herbal honey

When herbal medicine meets apitherapy and the two join forces, the result is herbal honey. Herbal honeys are produced in cooperation between humans and bees, which means that they are not 100% natural. This needs to be emphasized, because beekeepers are often meticulous in specifying that they understand herbal honey as a product made by bees fed with nutrient solutions supplemented with herbal infusions or decoctions. In order to prepare the recommended herbal honeys, you only need honey and a selection of plant ingredients.

Illustration by Karyna Piwowarska
Illustration by Karyna Piwowarska

Translated from the Polish by Grzegorz Czemiel

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Dominika Bok

A few years ago, she reoriented her interests towards fields and meadows; she transitioned from culture to nature. In the past, she described herself as an ethnographer, journalist, archivist and cultural animator. Today, she thinks of herself as an embroider, herbalist, certified farmer and amateur mystic. She dreads to think what the future holds.