Humans may think bees have a pretty boring life. All they do is fly around, collecting pollen and taking it back to the hive, then going back out to get more. They do this all day (weather permitting, of course), every day, for their entire lives-which last all of six weeks.
The daily activities of bees may not be all that interesting to humans, but what those activities produce certainly is. Humans have been using bee products for thousands of years. The bees’ Big Three are bee pollen, bee propolis, and royal jelly.
You may have seen bees crawling around on flowers and wondered what they were doing. Or maybe you knew that they were collecting pollen, but had no idea what they did with it.
Pollen, pure and simple, is bee food. After worker bees collect it, they add it to the honey they carry in their honey sacs and pack it into granules. Once they’re back at the hive these granules are mixed with enzymes that make them more digestible.
Bee pollen is what keeps bees alive. It’s very nutritious; it contains 24% protein, 27% carbohydrates, and 5% fat. It also has a lot of minerals, including iron, manganese, copper, zinc, calcium, magnesium, and potassium. And it has B vitamins and carotenes, which are precursors to vitamin A.
So why are humans interested in it? Actually, bee pollen is quite popular for allergies. It seems to act like an immunization shot, exposing a person to very small doses of an allergen so their bodies can build up needed antibodies. It can do this because, unlike plain pollen, it’s been processed-by bees.
Some doctors feel that bee pollen works best if it’s taken in its original granular form, rather than in something like a tablet that’s been through mechanical processing. However, the granules are very hard to digest, so it’s recommended that they be soaked in water first to help break down their tough outside coating.
Doctors have also urged caution, though. Bee pollen has been known to cause severe allergic reactions. If you’re allergic to bee stings or to other bee products, stay away from bee pollen.
Bee propolis is actually a resin that bees collect from wounds in trees. They mix it with beeswax and, when it’s warm-and soft-use it basically as caulking, to fill holes in the hive. Once it cools, or when the weather is cold, it gets very hard, acting as physical protection for the hive. But it may also be a physiological protector, because it seems to have antibacterial properties as well.
Bee propolis was used by the early Greeks to treat abscesses. The ancient Egyptians used it for mummification, because it preserves whatever is sealed inside it. And actually, bees have been known to use it for the same purpose, when a “foreign body”-like a mouse-gets into the hive.
Humans today use bee propolis for its antibacterial qualities, to treat or prevent infections like colds. It has also been used for burns and hemorrhoids.
Bee propolis can make asthma worse, though, so it should be avoided if you have this condition. It has also been known to cause a rash when it’s handled without gloves.
Royal jelly is secreted by glands in the head of the worker bee. It’s used to feed all bee larvae for the first three days of life, and only the queen larvae after that. It’s probably the reason why queen bees are so much larger than worker bees, and why they live so much longer as well (six years, as opposed to worker bees’ six weeks).
Royal jelly is mostly water, but it also contains protein, sugars, fatty acids, minerals, B vitamins, and 18 different amino acids, six of which the human body needs but can’t make.
Royal jelly’s main benefit to humans is that it assists growth by improving the appetite. It’s been used to treat loss of appetite in both babies with failure to thrive syndrome and seniors. It may also be good for chronic fatigue problems. And some doctors believe that it helps boost the immune system, which may make it useful for autoimmune conditions like rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis. As with bee propolis, royal jelly should be used with caution, or not at all, by people with asthma or allergies.
As a matter of fact, the biggest concern with all bee products is the risk of an allergic reaction. If you’re considering using any of these-bee pollen, bee propolis, or royal jelly-and you have any serious allergies, talk to your doctor first. Bee products can be helpful in some situations, but they can also be harmful. In any case, the safe choice is the wise one.