Propolis is one of the lesser-known items you can harvest from a beehive, but it still has a lot of great uses! Propolis is high in antibacterial, antimicrobial and antifungal properties making it great in healing salves, applied topically to severly dry skin, or used when you have a toothache or sore throat. Us beekeepers are lucky in that we can harvest it pretty easily from the hive. Once you have a good-sized ball of propolis in the freezer, it'll last you a long while.
In this article we talk about:
- What is propolis
- Benefits of propolis
- How to gather propolis from the hive
- How to make your own propolis trap
- Cleaning Your Propolis
- How to Make a Propolis Oil Tincture
- How to Make a Propolis Alcohol Tincture
- Propolis Recipes
What Is Propolis
If you've ever opened up a honey bee hive, you probably noticed that it wasn't as easy to open as you thought it would be! Whether you're using a Langstroth hive, top bar or other style hive, the bees seal it up with a super sticky substance we call propolis. Propolis is plant sap and the bees bring it to the hive for a few reasons.
Propolis is high is antibacterial, antimicrobial and antifungal properties.
Because of this the bees line the honeycomb cells in the hive with propolis to disinfect the place that the queen lays her eggs. Since propolis is super sticky it is also used to plug up holes in the hive, keeping out the elements, sun, and predators.
How much propolis you'll find in the hive varies with each hive. Some hives have propolis everywhere and you'll find globs of it all over your hive tool after inspecting the hive. Other hives hardly have any propolis on the boxes and frames.
Although propolis can vary in color, it is usually dark brown-ish red. It is very tacky and gooey when it is hot out, but hardens when cool. It is also a stain. Your brand new, bright white bee suit won't be clean for long and this is partly because of propolis. Good luck getting that stuff out of your clothes!
Benefits of Propolis
Now that we know why bees love propolis, what can the beekeeper do with it? Propolis is primarily used for medicinal purposes. Because it is antibacterial, antimicrobial and antifungal, it can be used internally for sore throats, sinus infections, congestion, mouth sores, irritated gums, and tooth aches. Propolis can also be applied topically to help heal minor cuts, burns, bites, rashes and nail fungus. Although not as common, propolis is known to help with severe dryness and used to treat eczema and psoriasis.
If you're like me and love an obscure craft project that can save you money, propolis can also be used as a stain. Take your propolis alcohol tincture and use it to stain wood and fabric. My husband used my proppolis to stain a walking stick he made for himself. The stain isn't all that dark, it makes a nice pale grey brown color.
How to Gather or Harvest Propolis From the Hive
When you're out checking the bees, it's tempting to just scrape the propolis gunked up on your boxes and take that for your tinctures, but I would recommend not going that route because you will, most likely, also get paint in your propolis and we want to avoid that. Also, if you put treatments in your hive for varroa mites, there is the potential that there are chemicals in the prpopolis as well. Here's how I harvest and clean propolis as well as a few alternative ways to gather propolis from your hive.
Step 1 - Get the Trap
If you'd rather just scrape it off of equipment, you can skip this step and go to step 3. Otherwise, you are going to need a propolis trap. Propolis traps look like queen excluders, just with smaller holes. They're usually plastic and pretty cheap (under $10). Here is a trap from Dadant, Betterbee (I've always had great luck ordering from Betterbee), and Weller Bee Supply.
If you'd like to make your own trap, get some corrugated plastic (what political signs are made from), and drill holes too small for a bee to go through (smaller than 3/8"). Or you can attach a screen with holes smaller than 3/8" and attach it to a queen excluder with electrical tape.
Step 2 - Set the Trap
Lay the trap directly under the lid. It will lay flat on top of the bars in the uppermost box in your hive. Take a small stick, shim or rock and put it on the trap so that it props up the lid a little bit. This little bit of an opening will allow light into the hive. The bees will then plug up the holes in the trap with propolis.
Step 3 - Pull the propolis
Once the holes are plugged up, bend the trap or scrape it so that you get the propolis off. If it's too tacky and isn't coming off easily, put it in the frig or a cool spot so that it hardens.
Step 4 - Smash It
If your propolis is soft and tacky, first put it in the freezer to harden it. Once the propolis is hard, put it in a bag and smash it into small pieces with a hammer. I find that smashing it on the sidewalk works well (and also when I'm annoyed and happy to make loud, banging noises).
Step 5 - Wash It
Get a bucket, or if you have a small amount, a large pot and fill it halfway with water. Put the propolis in and fill the bucket the rest of the way with water. Don't put the propolis in first. It will stick to the bottom if there isn't any water in there. Swish the propolis around with your hands to get all the dirt off. Let it sit so the propolis settles to the bottom and the dirt floats to the top and skim the dirt off with a strainer. If you don't have a strainer with small enough holes, put a piece of paper towel in the strainer first. Swish the propolis again and keep skimming off the dirt until it's clean.
Let propolis settle to the bottom, skim off the dirt one last time and then strain propolis from the water. Let it sit in a cool spot to dry.
Don't let propolis dry in a hot place or in direct sun or it will stick to the pan its sitting on.
Step 6 - Freeze
Once the propolis is completely dry, freeze until you're ready to use it.
Propolis tinctures made with alcohol are stronger and tend to contain more antibacterial properties than tinctures made with oil. However, sometimes you don't want your tincture to have alcohol in it like when you want to apply it to a cut or burn or put it in a lotion. For those projects, you'll want the propolis infused in oil.
Do not use rubbing alcohol in your tincture. This will prevent you from using it orally or injesting it. Although there are topical uses for propolis tinctures, it's best to not forget the type of alcohol you used and mistakenly injest it.
Keep in mind that propolis does not weight much. You might think you harvested a whole bunch of propolis for a big batch of alcohol and oil tincutres just to find that your bag of propolis weighs 2 ounces. Weigh your propolis before gettting started to see what you have the supplies for.
How to Make an Alcohol Propolis tincture
- Measure 1 part propolis (by weight) to 9 parts 75 proof Everclear. For example, 9oz of alcohol to 1oz of propolis.
- Mix in a jar and shake.
- Store in a cool, dark place.
- Continue to shake 2-3 times a day for 2 weeks.
- Strain tincture using a coffee filter (preferred) or cheesecloth.
- Once strained, store in a dark, glass jar.
How to Make an Oil Propolis Tincture
You can make your tincture with oil two different ways - the fast way using heat or the slow way the same as if you were using alcohol.
When making your tincture the slow way, follow the steps above for making your alcohol tincture just substitute oil where it sys to use alcohol in the same ratio.
Alternatively, you can do it this way:
- Measure 1 part propolis to 9 parts oil (olive oil is most common but you can also use another oil).
- Fill a pot with water and heat on medium low on a burner.
- Put a small sauce pan or pot inside the larger pot to create a double boiler and put your propolis and oil in this smaller pot.
- Heat on low, making sure to prevent oil from going above 120F.
- Once hot (but below 120F) let sit for 10 minutes to infuse oil.
- Strain using a coffee filter.
- Store in a dark, glass jar in a cool place.
You can reuse it! Keep that propolis you filtered for the next tincture.
For a Stronger Tincture
The recipes above are to make atincture that is a 10% solution.
For a 20% solution, use 800g of alcohol and 200g of propolis.
For a 30% solution, use 700g of alcohol and 300g of propolis.
Below are some recipes for propolis. When adding propolis to lotions, make sure you stir it constantly until it cools and solidifies or the propolis will separate.
Propolis Throat Spray
- 3tbsp propolis alcohol tincture
- 2tbsp raw honey
- 1tbsp warm water
- Mix all ingredients in a spray bottle.
- Spray the back of the mouth.
Propolis Healing Salve
- 1oz 30% Propolis Tincture
- 9oz Petroleum Jelly
- Heat petroleum jelly in a double boiler over medium low heat. Slowly add in tincture.
- Continue to stir until combined.
- Remove from heat and stir continuously until solidified.
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