Not only are honey bees a keystone species that play a part in the reproduction of many of our plants, trees and food crops – but they also create some pretty awesome products in their hives while they’re at it.
While we’re often most familiar with honey and beeswax, bees create other products that can be (responsibly!) harvested as well. Ever heard of bee pollen, propolis, or royal jelly? In this article we’ll talk about these 5 different honey bee hive products and explore some of the various (and perhaps surprising!) benefits they hold for humans.
1. More than just a sweet treat
While we’ve come to think of honey primarily as a delicious natural sweet that can be added to things like tea, marinades or as a general sweetener, this “liquid gold” can actually be used for many different purposes!
Honey’s antibacterial properties were discovered long ago – with honey being a prominent ingredient in many ancient medicinal recipes – and it’s still being used today to help cure numerous different ailments! Honey can be used to soothe things like throat infections as well as to seal, protect and promote the healing of surface wounds like burns or cuts.
Is there a special way to store this super product?
While honey keeps its flavor and “stays good” for years after being harvested from a hive or purchased from a store, storing honey with the intention of retaining all its nutritional benefits can be a bit more sensitive.
The best way to store honey with the intention of reaping all its yummy, healthy benefits is by simply keeping it in a cool, dry place. But regardless of how you store it – honey will remain sweet and tasty for years to come!
What if honey crystallizes?
If honey gets too cold, it can crystallize. But what does it mean if your honey crystallizes? It means you got the good stuff. Quality honey can crystallize overtime or quicker if it gets cold. But fear not – this doesn’t mean that your honey has spoiled! It simply means that the water and sugar content inside your honey hardened and you can easily bring it back to its original liquid form. (Although some folks actually prefer the texture of crystallized honey!)
There are many ways to liquify crystallized honey, but the easiest way is usually a warm water bath! Simply submerge your honey in warm water until it returns to its liquid form, or place your glass honey jar in several inches of warm water in a saucepan until it returns to liquid. But be mindful not to let the water get too hot – above 40º and it can spoil some of the nutritional benefits of honey. (It’ll still be sweet though!)
2. Pollen: A natural multivitamin and protein source
Pollen truly is a natural superstar among honey bee products. Pollen contains many crucial vitamins and minerals.
How is pollen harvested?
When visiting flowers in search of nectar and pollen, bees collect the bright, powdery pollen on their hind legs, packing it on tight so it stays intact as they fly with it back to the hive. To collect pollen from bees, beekeepers can install pollen gates at the front of their hive, forcing the bees to enter the hive through a hole only big enough for the bee… but not the tightly-packed “pollen baskets” she might be carrying. The pollen gate scrapes off the bee pollen and it lands in a small trap underneath the entrance, which can then be harvested by the beekeeper.
Because pollen is such an important resource for the bees (pollen is their protein!), responsible beekeepers will only install pollen traps for a few hours at a time and only during a time of year when there’s lots in bloom. Bee pollen can often be found at health food stores, and when you purchase it, you might even see different colours of pollen “balls”, meaning that the pollen was harvested from different types of flowers.
Storing and eating pollen
The best way of keeping pollen is by freezing it to keep it as fresh as possible! If the pollen has been dried out you can keep it in a dark, cool space.
Bee careful with – achoo! – pollen!
Some people may have allergies to pollen (even if they might not know it!). When trying pollen for the first time, make sure to only eat a very small amount and monitor yourself for symptoms of allergies, like light-headedness, scratchy throat or trouble breathing.
3. Beeswax: a natural multi-purpose product
Since humans first started keeping bees, we’ve been finding creative ways to use beeswax. Beeswax candles were a coveted, sweet-smelling product throughout the middle ages (when most candles were made of rendered animal fats). In the Ancient Egyptian era, beeswax was used in cosmetics – and it still is today.
Beeswax is a complex substance, entirely produced by female worker bees, that contains literally hundreds of natural components and antibiotic properties. It’s commonly used in topical skin products such as lip balms, ointments for dry or irritated skin, or hydrating creams.
Beeswax is also useful for waterproofing and is often an ingredient in natural fruit polishes (think of those shiny apples you see at the grocery store!), as well as in coating on pharmaceuticals like dry pills.
How and why do bees produce beeswax?
It’s the female workers who produce and shape the beeswax inside a colony. The workers produce the wax with their special wax glands – and each worker bee will only produce beeswax for a few days in her life!
Together, the worker bees warm up and soften their wax to mold it into their hexagonal honeycomb pattern – the most material and space-efficient shape they could choose! Clever bees. The bees’ wax honeycomb cells will be used and reused to store everything from developing bees to pollen and, of course, honey! It’s partly the minute, left-over traces of honey, pollen, and propolis that make beeswax smell so darn sweet!
4. Propolis: a natural antibiotic
One of the most amazing and lesser-known hive products is propolis. Propolis is a mix of tree resin, beeswax, and a bit of pollen – and it’s an overall amazing creation. Honey bees use propolis to both “seal” in their hive as well as to keep their hive clean.
Its sticky properties make it a great ‘glue’ to block wind from entering or heat from escaping the colony by using it to patch up any pesky cracks that develop in the inner walls. Propolis’ antibacterial properties also make it a great way for the bees to keep their honeycomb cells clean. The worker bees regularly coat the inside of honeycomb cells with thin layers of propolis to prevent any potential spread of disease.
Due to it being a natural antibiotic, it’s another hive product that is frequently used in medicines, alongside honey and beeswax. Perhaps its most common medicinal form is as throat sprays to help heal infection.
5. Royal jelly: food fit for a queen
Royal jelly is a precious substance within a honey bee hive. It’s produced in small amounts, by young worker bees and has a very important application: it has the power to create a queen (among other things).
Developing queens are fed vast amounts of nutrient-packed royal jelly, and this diet gives queen bees a much longer lifespan than their offspring as well as a larger body, able to store a lifetime’s worth of sperm and produce hundreds of thousands of eggs.
Royal jelly is also used to feed the other developing bees within a colony, but only a fraction of the amount which a queen receives.
Because of its royal association and life-lengthening qualities for queen bees, it has long been a coveted hive product for age-defying cosmetic creams and experimental treatments and is by far the most expensive to produce due to the difficulty and limited quantity of its harvest.