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Honeybees produce more than just honey...

We’ve come to know honeybees (Apis mellifera) for what their name suggests: ‘honey bearing’. But honey isn’t the only product these pollinators create; honeybees are proficient propolis manufacturers.

Propolis is the result of resin and several components of the hive such as, beeswax, honey and essential oils. On foraging flights, honeybees not only seek pollen and nectar but also tree resin. This tree resin is sticky and attaches to the pollen sacs on the hind legs of worker bees. Upon return to the hive, the sticky resin combines with hive components to create an incredibly useful product - propolis. Honeybees deposit propolis in all the uneven surfaces of the hive. They will cement the frames to the hive and to each other, sealing any gap within the structure.

Several researchers have tackled understanding the beneficial properties of propolis. Not only does this resin by-product hold structural integrity and aides in warding off wood decay, but it also acts like a defense against pathogens. Research has shown that propolis combats fungal and bacterial invasions, allowing the hive to live with lower bacterial/fungal loads. Researchers have found that honeybees living in colonies with lower bacterial/fungal loads due to propolis actually have reduced immune activation. This means that these honeybees allocate less energy to maintaining a high functioning immune system and can therefore redirect their energy elsewhere, such as increasing brood or honey production.

We can stimulate propolis production by scraping the inside of the wooden boxes during hive construction. Scraping the wood will create the uneven texture honeybees tend to fill with propolis. In addition, this sticky substance is often scraped off or collected for products created for humans; refraining from collecting this substance or scraping it off will aide the honeybees in maintaining this pathogen barrier. Increasing propolis production by ensuring that we don’t destroy what the bees have already produced is yet another tool in our integrative pest management techniques.  

Rachel Halliwell