Propolis, the resin-like substance coating a beehive’s surfaces, has long been known to have antiviral and antibacterial properties. As the world battles Covid and antibiotic resistance, expert James Fearnley says new research into propolis shows it may be even more effective against these than previously thought.
Propolis, from the Greek meaning ‘before the city’, is resin collected by honeybees from trees and plants, taken back to the hive and there processed and combined with wax. The bees literally defend the colony by constructing the labyrinthine entrance to the hive out of this sticky substance.
But propolis is used to defend the hive in many other ways. Every individual honeycomb cell is coated with it, making the bees’ internal environment more sterile than a hospital.
Every cell, whether it be filled with an egg or pollen or nectar, is sealed with a propolis wax capping, perfectly preserving its contents. If the hive is invaded, by a mouse for example, the bees can kill it but cannot move it.
Faced with a potentially lethal source of infection, as it decomposes, bees will coat the mouse with propolis and then with wax, effectively mummifying it and sealing in the source of infection. The Egyptians used propolis and honey to embalm and mummify their Pharaohs in their attempt to preserve the physical body for eternity.
An average colony contains around 60,000 bees living together at a temperature ideal for growing bacteria. Propolis provides the colony, the superorganism, with a highly effective immune defence mechanism. Not only is it used to physically seal up the hive against invaders but the chemicals in propolis prevent bacteria and viruses from multiplying by sealing the protein coating of the bacteria or virus.
Propolis has been used as a medicine by man for thousands of years. Priests in Egypt used it as did the Romans, the Hebrews and the Arabs. But with the coming of modern pharmaceutical medicine, propolis, like Sleeping Beauty, fell asleep for hundreds of years. In the brave new world of targeted, single-molecule pharmaceutical medicine, propolis was demoted to folk medicine.
Only in Eastern Europe did propolis continue to be explored scientifically. Thousands of scientific papers exploring the antibiotic, antifungal, anti- inflammatory, anti-tumoral, antiviral and other properties of propolis were published in the 50 years after WW1. Most were ignored in the West as they were perceived as lacking western scientific rigour.
In 1975, for example, The Kazan Veterinary Institute researched a combination of propolis and antibiotics and found that the effectiveness of the antibiotic could be improved by between 10 and 100 times. Nearly 50 years later, researchers at Leeds Becket University are re-discovering the same phenomenon.
It took a Danish doctor, Dr. Aagard Lund, in a study involving 5000 patients in the 1970s to show how propolis could help with an astonishing variety of ailments. They included swelling of tracts such as the sinus and large intestines, urinary tract infections, pharyngitis, gout, periodontal problems, open wounds, colds and influenza, bronchitis, gastritis, cancer and others. In the same decade, French doctor Dr Remy Chauvin, who had worked with propolis for 30 years mooted that it was possible that by introducing propolis “it is possible that we can one day abolish many drug-related chemicals and their side effects”.
In Britain we had to wait till the 1990s for breakthrough research from the UK Heart and Lung Institute in London, where Grange and Davey published a paper on the anti-bacterial properties of the bee’s ‘glue’. Their research showed that propolis inhibited the hospital-acquired infection MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus).
This triggered the start of my own research into propolis, working with the Universities of Oxford, Birmingham, York, Strathclyde and Bradford. Over the last 15 years we have made several ground- breaking discoveries and have published more than 30 scientific papers on propolis.
How Does Propolis Work?
Propolis does not work in the same way as pharmaceutical medicine. Antibiotics, for instance, work by targeting and destroying bacteria. Propolis instead works as an ally for your own immune system by selectively disabling and immobilising bacteria, viruses, or fungi. It can also balance your immune system as it is an ‘adaptogen’ – which means when your immune system is low it will jig it up, when it is too high it will calm it down.
At a recent conference of the International Propolis Research Group, research was presented which illustrated that propolis showed promise as an aid in the treatment of various of the comorbidities (i.e; underlying conditions present as well as Covid) that are particularly dangerous in Covid patients, including respiratory diseases, hypertension, diabetes, and cancer. It was also noted for “reducing the risk of cytokine storm syndrome, a major mortality factor in advanced Covid disease.”
Current research at Leeds Becket University is also illustrating an intriguing phenomenon. When propolis is combined with certain antibiotics which have effectively stopped working because of bacterial resistance, they begin to work again.
Antibiotics aim to kill ‘bad’ bacteria but inevitably kill lots of innocent good ones in the process. Propolis, on the other hand, ‘seals up’ the bacteria or virus and prevents them from multiplying. Remember how the bees sealed up the mouse in the hive with propolis? A range of chemicals called flavonoids in propolis seal the protein coating of viruses preventing them from multiplying.
Quorum Sensors are chemical triggers which fire off when bacteria recognise they have critical mass and are ready to become more organised in the form of biofilm. Biofilm is bacteria organised into battalions, incorporating communication and transport systems. Selected chemicals in propolis can scramble these signals and stop bacteria combining into this much more dangerous form. MRSA is a form of biofilm.
Wherever you find propolis in the world its chemical constituents are different. Our analysis of samples of propolis from all around the world revealed that propolis from areas where it was very hot and wet were more anti-bacterial, whereas propolis from temperate zones was more antioxidant – i.e, more anti-inflammatory.
What really intrigued us was finding that propolis from an area in Southern Cameroon where Sleeping Sickness was rife contained a chemical appropriate for treating that disease. Could the honeybee be creating propolis which helps local diseases?
Propolis is probably nature’s most powerful natural medicine as it provides us with nature’s own unique, complex and evolved immune defence mechanism. It helps our own body to do what it knows best – to deal with bacteria and inflammation. Different propolis formulations have been developed to help deal with specific health problems – it seems particularly effective in helping maintain oral health, with dentists and home users alike using propolis liquids and pastes, to treat caries, mouth ulcers, mouth cancers, and many more.
Propolis is unlikely to become a traditional licensed medicine under present regulations because of the difficulty in standardising and synthesising it. But mounting pressure to solve the global problem of antibiotic resistance may well change all that. Scientific papers about the medicinal use of propolis are being published now at an unprecedented rate.
It seems that propolis may be the bridge that can unite the benefits of pharmaceutical chemicals with the gentler and more long-lasting power of natural remedies.
Originally published in BQ Magazine, January 2022.
About the Author
James Fearnley has been researching propolis for more than 30 years, working with universities worldwide. He is the author of Propolis: Natural Healing from the Hive (Souvenir Press) and Propolis and Oral Health (Dispensary Press). His company BeeVital produces many propolis-based health supplements www.beevitalpropolis.com.