Bees are miraculous creatures that are responsible for the survival of some of our most important agricultural food crops and more than 90 percent of wild plants. Without bees, crops such as almonds, apples, berries, squash, broccoli, cantaloupes, cucumbers and alfalfa would become extinct. The Food and Agriculture Organization of United Nations (FAO) estimates that an incredible 71 percent of all crop species grown for human consumption depend on bees and other pollinators. Our lives are interwoven with these useful, tiny, fragile, productive creatures. Bees are the only insects in the world that make food—honey—that humans can eat. In addition to their enormous importance in our food chain, bees also produce a variety of substances that are used as natural medicines. Four of the best known are honey (also used as a food), propolis, bee pollen and royal jelly.
Honey has been used medicinally for millennia, and it is the most clinically studied of the bee products, with more than 8,000 journal articles archived on the electronic database of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), available at PubMed.gov. Perhaps the best-known form of medicinal honey is manuka honey. While all honey possesses some antibacterial properties, manuka honey has unique factors that may dramatically boost its ability to kill bacteria. Manuka honey is from New Zealand, and made by bees that collect pollen from the manuka flower. One particularly potent antibacterial compound in this honey is methylglyoxal (MG). While MG is found in many kinds of honey, it is generally in only small amounts. However, in manuka honey, there is a higher concentration of MG. The higher the MG, the greater the ability to kill bacteria. In fact, there is a rating system called the unique manuka factor scale, or UMF. Manuka honey needs a minimum rating of 10 UMF to be considered therapeutic. Honey at or above that level is marketed as “UMF Manuka Honey” or “Active Manuka Honey.”
There are more than 200 studies listed on the electronic database of the National Institutes of Health (PubMed.gov) specifically mentioning manuka honey. In a review article from April 2016, researchers reported a dramatic upswing in interest in using this natural product for antibacterial purposes, because the rise of antibiotic-resistant microorganisms. They particularly noted its effectiveness for wound treatments.
In addition to its ability to destroy bacteria, one in vitro study found it is highly effective against influenza viruses as well. Other studies illustrate the use of this special honey for healing stomach ulcers, treating oral infections, and even describe its anticancer benefits.
Like honey, propolis also has a great body of scientific literature demonstrating its benefits. With well over 2,400 studies archived on PubMed, propolis has a great deal of validation, especially with regard to its immune/anti-pathogenic benefits and use in cancer. “Propolis” means defender of the city and is used by bees to protect the hive from architectural degradation (cracks and damage) and also from pathogenic invasion by killing germs that can threaten the hive.
Propolis is collected by bees from trees and mixed with beeswax. Crude propolis is about two thirds wax and one third propolis. A German company has a purified propolis with the beeswax removed called GH2002. This form of propolis has been clinically studied topically for oral (and even genital) herpes lesions and found to dramatically speed healing and reduce pain. When taken early enough, it can even prevent the full encrustation stage of a fever blister more than 80 percent of the time. GH2002 has been compared favorably to the prescription drug acyclovir.
More recent in vitro studies on GH2002 found it effective against pathogens such as Streptococcus pyogenes, methicillin-resistant Stapylococcus aureus (MRSA), and Candida albicans, showing great promise for further research on its natural antibiotic potential.
Pollen is a powdery substance made by the male parts of flowers. It contains the genetic material to fertilize the female plant parts, but must be carried by insects to reach its destination. As bees flit from flower to flower, pollen is transported to neighboring plants and fertilization occurs. Bees also have an apparatus on their hind legs called a pollen basket (corbicula). Bees store pollen in this receptacle to bring back to the hive, where bees use pollen to make food. It’s a win-win situation. By collecting pollen for food, they also transport pollen from flower to flower and assure a new generation of plants, fruits, and vegetables.
Bee pollen contains vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates, fats, and a high percentage of protein. It may also contain a contribution of the bee that collected it—a small amount of bee saliva. Bee pollen is considered a highly nutritious food, and has many health benefits.
In a recent Polish study, compounds found in bee pollen include tocopherol, niacin, thiamine, biotin and folic acid, polyphenols, carotenoid pigments, phytosterols, and enzymes and coenzymes specific to this natural compound. They state “The promising reports on the antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti-cariogenic anti-bacterial, anti-fungicidal, hepatoprotective, anti-atherosclerotic, immune enhancing potential require long-term and large cohort clinical studies.” One of the difficulties in designing human trials has to do with the great amount of variability of bee pollen. However, though not as many studies have been done on bee pollen, early results are promising and more human research should be supported.
Just as we feed our infants specialized nutrition in the form of breast milk, bee babies (larvae) are fed special blends of honey and royal jelly (made by nurse bees) that dictate what they become in life. Larvae fed royal jelly for only three days become workers and drones—the vast majority of bees. But when a new queen is needed, a select few larvae are fed royal jelly throughout their “childhood” and it changes their brain, reproductive organs, body shape and type. They emerge as queens—large and powerful, and, unlike other members of the hive, able to lay eggs and produce offspring.
Spectral analysis has shown that royal jelly contains as many as 185 different organic compounds. Because of these unique characteristics, royal jelly has been used for a wide array of ailments, based on anecdotal reports of success. Some claims for royal jelly efficacy are for menopausal symptoms, liver disease, fractures, low immunity, and a variety of autoimmune disorders. The clinical research on this interesting substance is not yet well developed. An animal study showed royal jelly may slow muscle and strength loss associated with aging, and another showed improvement in menstrual symptoms, though in that study, it was blended with other compounds as well. A mouse study showed benefits in periodontal disease, and another mouse study showed it might be useful for the autoimmune disease, systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE). More study is warranted, but people who use royal jelly are quite vocal in their advocacy for its value as a natural medicine. VR
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Cheryl Myers is an integrative health nurse, author, and an expert on natural medicine. She is a nationally recognized speaker who has been interviewed by the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Prevention magazine. Her many articles have been published in such diverse journals as Aesthetic Surgery Journal and Nutrition in Complementary Care, and her research on botanicals has been presented at the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology and the North American Menopause Society. Myers is the head of Scientific Affairs and Education for EuroPharma, Inc.