Ancient Russian Uses for Propolis

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Honeybees use propolis like mortar to keep honeycombs in good repair.

For more than 2,000 years, folk healers in Russia and Eastern Europe carried propolis (bee-glue) in their medicine bags. Often called Russian penicillin, healers believed it cures bacterial infections, dental problems and skin diseases. Propolis, a sticky resin honeybees collect from tree buds in their pollen pockets, is used like mortar to patch honeycombs and waterproof the hive. Large insects like snails that die in a hive are embalmed with propolis to avoid bacteria.

  1. History

    • Ancient Roman scholar Pliny the Elder wrote of propolis healing persistent sores. Russians, Mongolians and Siberians diluted it with turpentine to treat wood against cracks and rot in bitterly cold winters. In the Boer War (1899-1902), doctors mixed Vaseline and propolis to create an antiseptic wound ointment. In 1919, after the Russian revolution, Lenin recognized bee-keepers' importance with a tax exemption. During World War II, Russian medics and others used propolis as an antibiotic wound treatment.

    Diseases Treated

    • Propolis is promoted as a natural antibiotic, boosting the immune system without destroying the good bacteria killed by chemical antibiotics that kill disease bacteria. Tests done at the Institute for Bee Research in West Germany in 1987 showed promise for treating herpes viruses. Gum disease, skin problems. oral sores, gout, arthritis, ulcers, viruses and common colds are among the ailments treated by propolis. It is sold in ointment, cough syrup, throat lozenges, toothpaste and dental rinse. People with asthma or bee allergies should avoid propolis products.

    Buyer Beware

    • Bea Perks, deputy editor of Chemistry World, described propolis as "a fraudster's dream" because it is expensive and easy to adulterate. If it were regulated, forensic analysis could test for flavenoids (plant metabolites) that are found in certain proportions in genuine propolis. At about $17 for 0.85 oz. of propolis solution, the consumer is not guaranteed a quality product.

    Potential

    • A University of Minnesota research study looked into ways propolis compounds might help bees fight diseases, which are wiping out bee colonies in many countries. Propolis contains 300 to 500 chemical compounds to be investigated, a slow and painstaking process. Different sources affect plant flavenoid concentrations, depending on where bees harvest tree resin. Study results suggest propolis has potential as a source of antiviral HIV drugs.

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