What Is It?
As worker bees conduct their daily business–maintaining their hive, providing for the queen bee, collecting pollen–they unwittingly produce substances that some enthusiasts consider valuable in healing. Health-food stores and nutrition shops often carry three of these products: propolis, royal jelly, and bee pollen.
Propolis is the resin that bees collect from pine tree buds to seal cracks and sterilize their hives. It’s also known as bee glue.
Royal jelly is the nutritious, creamy white substance that the worker bees pump out of their salivary glands to keep the queen bee well-nourished, fertile, and long-living.
Bee pollen is collected by beekeepers from the supplies that bees have extracted from flowers of certain plants. In some cases, products labeled as bee pollen have actually been collected by humans from the plant, without any involvement on the part of bees.
Another bee product, honeybee venom, is also used medicinally in a therapeutic process called apitherapy, or bee therapy. For more information on this, see the WholeHealth Chicago library entry on Apitherapy.
The popularity of traditional bee products shows little sign of abating. Laboratory studies in the test tube and in small animals abound. The Chinese in particular have examined bee products intensively.
Enthusiasts tout bee pollen–which contains varying amounts of protein, B vitamins, carbohydrates, and enzymes–as a near cure-all. The Chinese have used it as a nutrient source for centuries. In Germany, government authorities consider bee pollen valuable for increasing appetite and countering weakness and fatigue. However, these same nutrients can easily be obtained today from other sources at much less effort and expense, and with much less potential risk for allergic individuals.
Unfortunately, most of the enthusiastic claims made for the various bee products–that they promote weight loss, slow the aging process, combat bacteria and increase immunity, and boost overall energy and athletic performance–have little or no scientific backing. Royal jelly in particular may promote the vigorous growth, fertility, and longevity of queen bees, but the evidence to support its value for a similar benefit in humans is lacking.
In sum, only a handful of the multiple claims made for bee products are well-founded.
Specifically, bee products may help to:
Relieve seasonal pollen allergies (hay fever). The hallmarks of hay fever–sneezing, watery eyes, runny nose–may lessen under the influence of bee pollen treatment. The regimen probably works as a result of the body’s desensitization to the pollen’s allergens. When you repeatedly expose yourself to pollen in minute amounts, your immune system gradually learns to recognize the offending substance and then forgoes launching an extreme reaction to it. Allergy shots work in a similar way. Advocates of this approach urge the use of pollen collected from local bees, because it probably contains the actual plant-based substances that you are having a reaction to and that you require protection against.
Heal abrasions, cuts, and bruises. Propolis (bee glue) may play a role in helping to heal wounds by virtue of its bacteria-fighting compounds and skin-softening properties. However, standard antibiotics (including over-the-counter antibiotic ointments) are clearly more effective and reliable in combating skin infections.
–For seasonal allergies (hay fever): A standard daily dosage of bee pollen for allergy symptoms begins with three or four granules, or part of a tablet or capsule. Work up gradually to one to three rounded teaspoons of granules, or follow package directions for tablets or capsules. See the information below for details on how to start a bee pollen regimen.
–For skin abrasions and minor wounds: Apply a small amount of propolis (bee glue) to the abrasion or wound twice daily, and then cover with a lightweight gauze or other dry dressing to protect the area.
Guidelines for Use
When treating allergy symptoms, keep in mind that the amount of bee pollen needed varies from person to person.
If you have allergies, take extra care to monitor your reaction. Start out with a very small amount daily, perhaps a portion of a tablet or a few granules. Very slowly then, in increments over days, increase your dose to that recommended on the package.
Warning signs of an allergic reaction to bee pollen include hives, itchy throat, skin flushing, and wheezing. Discontinue use immediately if these symptoms develop.
Stay with a single bee pollen source once you have determined a dosage, because the pollen content may vary among products.
Drink plenty of water with bee pollen supplements.
When taking bee pollen in fresh or dried form, try sprinkling it over a bowl of oatmeal or other food or mixing it with juice.
There are no known drug or nutrient interactions with bee products.
Possible Side Effects
Such reactions as wheezing, headache, itchy throat, hives, or skin flushing signal an allergy to bee products. Discontinue use immediately if these symptoms develop.
Severe allergic reactions (including anaphylactic shock, which can be fatal) are possible and can be very serious, requiring immediate emergency medical attention.
If you develop any side effects after taking a bee product, discontinue use right away.
Remain vigilant for signs of an adverse reaction as you increase the dosage of bee pollen for allergy symptoms.
If you have asthma or an allergy to bee stings, don’t take royal jelly and be sure to exercise extreme caution in taking any other bee products.
If you have asthma or an allergy to bee stings, carefully inspect prepared and packaged foods for bee products–including apparently innocuous “healthy” ones, such as fruit smoothies.
David Edelberg, MD