We all know that bees make honey. However, beehives produce several useful substances including beeswax and propolis too. They have important “bee reasons” for doing this but we humans also find them useful. In fact, some beekeepers invest the time and effort to harvest propolis and sell it to supply companies. This adds another income stream to help offset costs.
Plant resins (used to make propolis) are one of several resources collected by honey bees. The bees add their own enzymes to the resins to make a powerful product that helps the hive stay healthy.
Collecting Propolis from Your Bees
We humans have uses for several different products from the hive. We can take a share of the honey without harming the colony. Bee pollen is also a valuable by product of keeping bees.
But, propolis is a bit different. Some colonies, depending on the breed or type of honey bee, make more propolis than others.
What is Bee Propolis?
By definition, bee propolis is a red or brownish substance collected by honey bees from tree buds and plants. In fact, the bees mix their enzyme rich saliva with the plant resins.
Another word for propolis is “bee glue”. If you have ever experienced it inside a hive, you understand why it is called glue.
The correct pronunciation prop·o·lis has an accent on the first section “prop”. However, you will find many beekeepers who pronounce it with an emphasis on the first 3 letters “pro-po-lis.”
It is not unusual for a beekeeper to have a difficult time with beehive inspections in a colony that is a heavy producer.
This is one reason I like to assemble my own beehive frames – to make sure they are tightly glued together and won’t pull apart.
Why Bees Use Propolis
Propolis is used by bees to polish inside the hive, clean and seal cracks. Small cracks between the boxes can let in chilling cold wind. The bees stop that with the this sticky stuff.
Bee propolis has anti-fungal, antiviral and antibacterial properties. It helps prevent unwanted fungus or bacterial growth inside the warm humid hive.
This use of this natural sealer goes far beyond just sealing a few cracks between bee boxes. But, the use of propolis promotes good colony health.
Possible Human Health Benefits
Propolis is not only considered a healthy compound for bees, many humans seek it out too. Among other qualities, it is valued for reducing inflammation and is used as an aid in wound healing.
It is also reported to be beneficial against fungi, bacteria, and viruses among other substances.
This makes propolis a valuable ingredient in many types of medicines and homeopathic treatments. Some of these uses date back to the Egyptians thousands of years ago.
How Bees Carry Propolis
How do bees get this sticky resin from the tree back to the hive? Workers gather plant resins and bring them back to the hive on their hind legs (pollen baskets). This special part of a bee is made to carry pollen but it works for propolis too.
A beekeeper may get a glimpse of a returning worker with a resin load. But, it is sometimes difficult to see because it is not as colorful as pollen.
In this process of gathering and transporting, the chemical composition of the resin changes. Bee saliva along with wax, honey, etc is mixed with the plant resins to create the substance we call raw bee propolis.
The exact chemical composition of propolis varies slightly from one location to another due to the different plants used for resin and sap collection. So the color of propolis can actually vary from brown to red to yellow.
This is similar to the way that the color of honey (as well as taste) varies from one area to another. It all depends on the plants the bees are visiting and each area can be different.
Propolis Harvesting Methods
Selling propolis is big business due to a high demand in the healthcare industry. Many large companies focus on the collection of propolis and other premium bee products.
However, small scale beekeepers can also harvest raw propolis from their hives. No damage is done to the bees in the hive with normal harvest methods.
Two Common Methods
- pollen traps
1. How to Use a Propolis Trap on Your Hive
The most common method of collection is by using traps. This could be a flexible piece of screen or fabric or a commercial propolis trap. They are not very expensive and should last for several seasons.
The best time of year to trap propolis is early Fall. During this time the bees are working hard to plug any cracks.
The trap looks very similar to a plastic queen excluder except that the openings are much smaller. Worker bees can not move through the trap. Therefore it should not be placed between super boxes (any size) of the hive.
The trap is placed beneath the inner cover – on top of the highest super box. Using a small stick to prop the top lid up just a bit often helps – bees like to block out light sources.
Most often, your bees will fill the cavities of the trap with bee glue as they attempt to close up the hive for Winter.
Once the trap is full, or before true Winter cold arrives – remove the trap. After placing it in the freezer for a few hours, the material will become brittle. Then, bits of propolis will pop out when the trap is flexed.
Another option used by some beekeepers is to create a propolis trap using metal screen wire. Window screen is a common choice with a frame of wood around the outside for strength. This is similar to a regular wood shim used by some beekeepers for other hive management strategies.
Placed inside the hive in the same position (on top), the bees will also propolize the screen. This is only left on the colony for a short time and removed before Winter arrives.
Then, allowed to cool in the freezer – scraping the screen with your hive tool should cause the bits to pop out.
2. How to Scrape Bee Propolis from Equipment
If you only want to harvest a small amount of propolis for home use – box scrapings will do well. After the honey harvest, super boxes and frame ends still contain some bee propolis.
- Spread a sheet or plastic tarp on the floor to catch the scrapings
- Inspect each wooden hive part – looking for sticky propolis
- Use your hive tool to gently scrape off the bee glue
- Avoid getting wood shavings in the product as much as possible
- When finished – gather your tarp and pour propolis bits into a jar
- Store in freezer until ready to clean
Scraping is an easier way to get propolis without disturbing the hive. However, it can be difficult to avoid getting wood scrapings or paint in your collected propolis.
As you use your hive tool to peel the propolis off the surfaces, tiny slivers of wood can be included. Be as gentle as possible.
Clean & Store
Now it is time to clean your raw propolis. Propolis is hard a brittle when cold but becomes gummy and pliable when warmed. It should be cold and hard. You may need to put in the freezer or frig for a few hours.
Fill a clean bucket halfway with cool water and then add the propolis bits. Use your hands to swish it around, this helps release some of the dirt etc.
The heavier propolis goes to the bottom will debris floats on top. This can be skimmed off. Continue until no more debris is present.
Strain the propolis bits from the water and place it in a cool place to dry. Once it is completely dry, you can store it in the freezer until ready to use or sell. You may want to try making your own propolis tinctures.
The most common method of collecting propolis is buy using a trap It temporarily replaces the inner cover of the hive. Once the bees plug the holes with propolis, the trap is removed.
Some folks use raw propolis topically to treat minor scraps, burns or cuts.
All honeybees produce propolis but the Caucasion bees and those with their genetics are known for having abundant propolis in the hives.
A Final Word
Learn how to harvest propolis from bees is a useful skill. For the beekeeper who is interested in holistic medicine or want to maximize the value of the apiary – propolis is one more piece of the puzzle.
The demand for propolis is very high. Raw propolis can be sold to several online companies. Do a search for them and perhaps you can add a bit of extra profit (income) to your beekeeper salary this year.