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The Folk History and Use of Propolis

Propolis has been used by man for a variety of medicinal and non-medicinal purposes since ancient times. It is tempting to think that before modern science the ancients were somehow forced to use natural substances as a kind of last resort, because they knew no better. The truth was very different and as we review the history of propolis we need to examine again our whole mindset relating to how our ancestors understood and worked with nature.

Whilst the ancients may not have had the technology and language of modern science, they certainly had knowledge. But it was a different, no less powerful knowledge, derived from a different worldview and sense of being. Their worldview was based on a relationship with and understanding of nature, gained through per­ ception and intuition as well as through pure observation. It was a worldview which experienced and understood natural phenomenon as part of a powerful, unified and ultimately divine system.

The Egyptians

In ancient Egypt the priests were also the scientists, keeping sacred their knowledge of the natural world and its chemistry, and using this knowledge in medicine, engineering or agriculture. The land of Canaan, the Bible tells us, was a land ‘flowing with milk and honey’ and was one of the earliest areas where agriculture and cattle rearing were practised. There would be plenty of food for the honeybee. The Egyptians’ capacity for detailed observation of nature is illustrated by the many anatomically accurate sketches of the honeybee that can be found in wall paintings still extant.

Around 3500 bc when Upper and Lower Egypt were united under one ruler, the bee was used as a symbol to denote the ruler of Upper Egypt, whilst the reed denoted the ruler of Lower Egypt. The Kahun papyrus refers to this political union.

He hath united the two lands,
He hath joined the Reed to the Bee.

Pliny, the Roman writer, noted that the resin in propolis could be collected from, amongst other sources, the reed, making the symbolism of the Egyptian unification even more potent.

The Egyptians believed that the dead would need their bodies in the next life. Mummification was designed to preserve the body after death, intact as far as possible, for this event. To do this the priests used bee products extensively. First, the body was prepared by the removal of certain of the internal organs. Then the priests would soak the body itself, and the bandages with which they wrapped it, in a mixture produced by melting down the whole honeycomb—a combination of wax, honey and propolis. In surviving records it is clear that while the Egyptians distinguished between honey and wax they had no special term for the propolis itself, unlike the Greeks.

Modern research has confirmed the antibiotic and preservative qualities of honey and more especially of propolis. This may explain why the mummies, like the  mummified mice that are found in hives, have been preserved intact for thousands of years. Numerous descriptions exist of how the Egyptians preserved their dead in honey, sealing the coffins with wax. One story provides a particularly graphic illustration of this practice. Robbers seeking treasure in one of the pyramids found a sealed jar containing honey. One of the robbers dipping his bread into the honey found a human hair. On closer inspection they found the body of a small child still intact, complete with ornaments, and perfectly preserved in its honey-filled tomb.2

Mysterious healing properties were attributed to these mummified remains. Those touching them were said to be cured of many diseases. So powerful was the belief, that in the absence of  the  real  thing,  mummies  were  created  specifically  for  the purposes. An ancient Persian manuscript describes how you can make one yourself.3

Find a ruddy, red-haired man and feed him till he is three years old on fruit; then drown him in a stone vessel which is filled with honey and drugs and seal up the vessel. When it is opened after the lapse of one hundred and fifty years, the honey will have turned the body into a mummy.

The interesting reference to the inclusion of ‘drugs’ may well refer to a folk knowledge of propolis as a healing agent already tried and tested by the priests in Egypt.

The Sumerians, and later the Babylonians, also used honey to preserve their dead. ‘They bury their dead in honey and have funeral lamentations like the Egyptians,’ said one writer.4 Another chronicler recorded that, ‘The Assyrians bury the body in honey first smearing it with wax.’

In a modern biography of Alexander the Great the author tells us how on his deathbed Alexander ordered that he be buried in honey.5  This was done using ‘white honey, which had not been melted.’ With Aristotle as his teacher, Alexander would no doubt have been aware of the preserving properties of honey and propolis.

The Syriac Book of Medicine contains interesting references to what today we would understand as the powerful anti-bacterial role of propolis in the hive. These references were presented as a series of handy tips to Syrian beekeepers for maintaining a healthy  beehive  and  therefore  a  good  honey  supply.  Two  of the tips in particular remind us yet again of our mouse story. Syrian beekeepers were advised to ‘bury the liver of a white falcon in a beehive and the bees will thrive’. It was also suggested that

‘whosoever shall place the eye of a bear in a hive of working bees, the bees shall prosper.’

The presence of dead, potentially decomposing matter within the  hive  would present a  serious bacterial problem. The  bees would respond by producing fresh propolis as well as calling on existing stores to seal up the foreign matter. By stimulating the production of propolis we can see how the bees’ ‘immune response’ mechanism was triggered, leading to improved all-round health in the hive. One is reminded here of the current use of bee venom injected directly into the bloodstream to boost the immune system of sufferers of post-viral fatigue syndrome.

The Greeks

It was not until Greek times that we find the first specific reference to propolis, in Aristotle’s pioneering natural scientific study of the honeybee, and it was the Greeks who first took up beekeeping as an agricultural activity. By around 400 bc, during the time of Pericles, 20,000 beehives were kept in Attica, an area which became famous for its honey, believed to possess medicinal properties.

The Greeks continued to use honey to embalm and preserve human bodies, particularly those of their soldiers who died far from home. Agesipolis, the Spartan king, who died in Asia, was preserved in honey like Alexander the Great before him, before being brought home to Sparta. Not only soldiers could demand this treatment; the Greek philosopher Democritus was also preserved in honey following his death.

Hippocrates (460–377 bc), considered by many the father of modern medicine, recognised the medicinal properties of propolis and is reputed to have prescribed propolis to help heal sores and ulcers, both external and internal.

The Greeks used propolis as the principal ingredient of a reputedly exquisite perfume called ‘polyanthus’. The recipe combined finely mixed propolis with olibanum styrax, benzoin and aromatic herbs. It was burnt on slow-burning charcoal and apparently produced a wonderfully delicate and aromatic incense.

The Romans

The Romans were responsible for the further development of beekeeping and for extending our understanding of propolis. The exact origin of propolis was the subject of dispute between Pliny, the prolific researcher and writer on natural history, and the doctor, Dioscorides. Pliny thought that propolis was resin harvested by the bees from the buds of willow, elm and reed and other plants, whilst Dioscorides thought it was harvested solely from Styrax.

Pliny in his 35-volume Natural History illustrated a considerable knowledge of the bee world including a detailed understanding of propolis.

First they construct combs and mould wax, that is, construct their homes and cells, then produce offspring, and afterwards honey, wax from flowers, bee-glue from the droppings of the gum-producing trees—the sap, glue and resin of the willow, elm and reed. They first smear the whole interior of the hive itself with these as with a kind of stucco, and then with other bitterer juices as a protection against the greed of other small creatures, as they know that they are going to make something that may possibly be coveted; with the same materials they also build wider gateways round the structure.

Pliny goes on to define three separate types of propolis. The first is Commosis from which the word ‘cosmetic’ is derived. This is a thin varnish-like substance, which the bees use to paint, polish and disinfect all the surfaces in the hive. Then comes Pissoceros, a mixture of propolis resin and wax, which the bees use as a building material to seal holes and to reinforce the comb. Finally, he identifies Propolis itself, so-called because the bees use it to construct the narrow winding entrance to the hive—the true Defender of the City.

Pliny also refers to the medicinal properties of propolis:

current physicians use propolis as a medicine because it extracts stings and all substances embedded in the flesh, reduces swelling, softens indurations (hardened tissue), soothes pains of the sinews and heals sores when it appears hopeless of them to mend.

Dioscorides, a leading Roman authority on healing, writing in the first century ad,  refers frequently in his Materia Medica to the use of honey, wax and propolis in treating illness.

The yellow bee glue that is of a sweet scent and resembling styrax, is to be chosen, and which is soft in ye excessive dryness of it, and easy to spread after the fashion of mastic. It is extremely warm and attractive, and (is good for the) drawing out of thorns and splinters. And being suffumigated it doth help old coughs and being applied it doth take away the lichens. It is found about ye mouths of hives, in nature like unto wax.

Celsus, writing in the same period, includes propolis in a list of products able to ‘mature abcessions and promote suppuration:’ they were:

nard, myrrh, costmary, balsal, galbanum propolis, styrax, frankincense, both the root and the bark, bitumen, pitch sulphur, resin, suet, fat, oil… . The best extractive, however, is that called by the Greeks rhypodes, from its resemblance to dirt. It contains myrrh, crocus, iris, propolis, bedelium, pomegranate heads, alum, mistletoe juice, turpentine resin or he-goat’s suet.

The Arab World

References to the religious significance of the bee abound in ancient civilizations, often in relation to health and healing. Even with the coming of Islam and its disapproval of pantheistic cults we find references to the power of the honeybee and the medicinal properties of the hive.

Thy Lord has taught the bee saying ‘provide thee houses in the mountains and in the trees, and in the hives which men do build for thee. Feed, moreover, on every kind of fruit, and walk the beaten paths of the Lord.’ From its belly comes forth a fluid of varying hues, which yieldeth medicine for men.

Ibn Magih, an Arabic writer, quotes Mohammed as saying:

‘Honey is a remedy for every illness, and the Koran is a remedy for all illness of the mind, therefore I recommend to you both remedies, the Koran and Honey.’

The Arab doctor Abu Ali ibn Sina (Avicenna) in his famous book The Canon of Medicine spoke of two different kinds of wax—clean wax and black wax. It seems clear that the black wax was propolis which, according to Avicenna, ‘has the characteristics of eliminating the spikes of the bolts and the stakes. It also rarefies, cleans and soaks.’ As an aside he also tells us that ‘by its strong smell, the black wax makes you sneeze.’

Propolis In Europe

Very few direct references to propolis are found in early British herbal literature. There are, however, numerous references to the anti-inflammatory properties of tree and plant resins, the basic raw materials harvested by the bee to produce propolis.

John Gerard in his famous Herball refers to ‘the rosin or clammie substance of the blacke Poplar buds.’ He tells us how the apothecaries used these substances to make ointments for treating a range of inflammatory conditions.

Nicholas Culpeper, in his Complete Herbal, also refers to the medicinal properties of poplar tree resin. ‘The clammy buds hereof, before they spread into leaves, are gathered to make Unguentum and Populneum . . . The ointment called Populneum, which is made of this Poplar, is singularly good for all heat and inflammation in any part of the body and tempers the heat of wounds.’

In Green’s Universal Herbal we find further references to the use of the resin from two species of poplar trees. Under Populus nigra (Black Poplar Tree) Green tells us:

The young leaves are an excellent ingredient for poultices for hard and painful swellings. The buds of both this and the White Poplar smell very pleasantly and being pressed between the fingers, yield balsamic resinous substances which, extracted by spirits of wine, smells like styrax. A drachm of this tincture in broth is administered in internal ulcers and excoriations and is said to have removed obstinate fluxes proceeding from an excoriation of the intestine.

Under Populus balsamifera (Common Tacamahaca Poplar Tree) we hear:

‘The buds of this tree from autumn to the leafing are covered with an abundance of glutinous yellow balsam, which often collects  into  drops,  and  is  pressed  from  the  tree  as  a medicine. It dissolves in the spirits of wine; and the inhabitants of Siberia prepare a medicated wine from the buds. This wine is diuretic and, as they think serviceable in the scurvy.’

Whilst very little appears to have been known about propolis in  Britain  and  northern  Europe  it  seems  that  in  old  southern and central Russia propolis was a familiar natural remedy. It is interesting to speculate whether this knowledge had always existed in these areas or whether it traveled north from Greece and the Arab countries.

In Georgia, where the Arab influence was strong, Sul-han-Saba (1658–1725) the complier of a Georgian encyclopedic dictionary defined propolis as ‘a substance similar to wax from the bottom of the hive.’

In the Carabadini, a Georgian book of medicine published in the thirteenth century, the author suggests a treatment for dental decay. The recipe involves propolis mixed with arsenic, red lentil, yarrow, wood germander, to which is added one spoon of olive oil and one of honey. The mixture is then placed on the bad tooth. Propolis as we shall see later is now used extensively by modern dentists to treat a wide variety of periodontal problems.

Moving towards modern times another Georgian medical treatise, published in the 18th century, recommends the use of propolis for the treatment of haemoptysis. ‘One has to take propolis grains having the size of a pin’s head, for two days—three pieces, in the morning and in the afternoon.’20

Traditionally, in Georgia, propolis cakes—small flat pats of propolis—were used to treat a variety of conditions. For arthritis the cake was wrapped in a warm cloth and left on the inflamed or painful area all night. A similar treatment was recommended for treating skin abscesses, where it is claimed the propolis cake eliminated the pus very quickly.21  For treating corns a thin layer of propolis was placed on the corn and then bandaged into place. Parents of newborn children were also advised to place a propolis cake on the belly button of newborn children and to rub their children’s toys with propolis.