Perhaps this will be a shock to you. Perhaps it won’t. But bees actually produce more than just honey. Obviously, the golden sweet stuff is one of our main goals. But when you’re looking at beehives as a matter of self-sufficiency, there are a number of other exciting reasons to keep a few hives. Today I’m going to go through a few of these bee products. My hope is that knowing these beneficial products are available will be added incentive on why you should become a beekeeper. Or, at least, to try to capitalize on the hive by doing more than indulging your sweet tooth.
What Bee Products Are There?
When I first started beekeeping, I was pretty surprised to learn just how many different things bees collect or create. Some of them are kind of obvious, while others are surprising, strange, or downright bizarre. Here’s the general list:
Ahh, sweet blessed honey. The golden ticket of beekeeping. I am excitedly awaiting my first true harvest of this rich nectar. I almost stole it all recently, but I am forcing myself to follow the advice of my peers and wait till late August… At least mid-august.
We all know the wonderful taste that honey can impart. Many don’t realize how many other amazing uses there are for it, though. Honey has been used medicinally for centuries.
Honey is hygroscopic (that’s a big word that means it absorbs moisture from the air) because it has actually been evaporated down to a point where its water content is abnormally low for a liquid. How is that helpful? Well, there’s a bunch of science behind it, but basically, bacteria grows in moist environments, which honey is not. That is one reason for honey’s antibacterial, anti-fungal properties. The other being that honey produces certain enzymes that are antimicrobial in nature. Likewise, honey’s hygroscopic nature means that if applied topically and left open to the air, it absorbs moisture from the surroundings. This aids in its use as a skin-softening cream or burn treatment, as it keeps bringing in moisture and applying it where it is needed.
Raw honey (the kind you’d be harvesting from your backyard beehives) still contains trace amounts of pollen, which account for its amazing use as an allergy medicine.
Beehives used to be the world’s standard supplier for candles. Especially for churches and other enclosed buildings that sought a good quality light and didn’t want to have the place smell like burning oil all the time. Nowadays, the most common candle material is paraffin wax. Here’s a great article on the benefits of beeswax candles vs oil-processing-sludge-left-over candles. Yes paraffin, I’m looking at you.
In addition to just being healthier and better, beeswax candles also burn clearer and don’t smoke. If this was the only use for the beeswax you were likely to harvest from your hive, it would still be worth it.
But, naturally, that’s not all beeswax is good for. From lip balm, to pain relief, beading and jewelry making, and innumerable others. Here’s a short list from Global Healing Center that doesn’t do beeswax justice, but gives a small taste of what it can be used for. There are literally hundreds of different uses for your beeswax.Since your hive is a beeswax making machine, that’s rather handy!
Pollen is a coarse powder gathered from flowers by honey bees and other pollinators. It’s basically the boy part of flower sex. The bee (or other pollinators) gets this powdery stuff on themselves as they fly from flower to flower and basically rub off the boy parts onto the next flower’s female parts. If this is sounding too birds and the bees for you, believe me, it’s better than explaining it to your children. For bees, however, this stuff gets mixed with glandular secretions and honey or nectar in the hive to form “bee bread”. Pollen is basically the protein part of their diet, the carbohydrates coming from nectar and honey.
Although the scientific studies on the medicinal use of pollen as a health supplement are still catching up, there are many firm believers out there. Dr. Axe is one of them. For my own part, while I’ve purchased a pollen trap to try and gather some of this most curious of substances, I haven’t put it in place yet. I’m still learning how to make sure the bees have enough pollen for themselves! I’m not ready to risk taking any of their supply. Yet.
However, there are a lot of great articles out there about the benefits of bee pollen, and if you take a look at how much it costs in stores… Yowzah. I would definitely rather gather my own from my bees than buy it! They can call it rent if they want. In all likelihood, I suspect that pollen trapped in your own hive would be more beneficial for you anyway! Anything gathered locally to you is going to be better suited to your environment, after all.
As bee products go, we’re starting to get into the less known areas. Propolis is known fondly (not) amongst beekeepers as ‘bee glue’. It’s a sticky resin-like substance harvested from many sources. In my neck of the woods, primarily from pine trees. Above room temperature, it’s sticky and glue-like, whereas if you freeze it, it is brittle and hard. While sometimes I think beekeepers believe bees gather propolis just to make their lives difficult, there are a number of practical reasons the bees put this stuff everywhere.
Propolis is antiviral, antifungal, and antibacterial in nature. Bees keep the inside of their hive as free as possible from dangerous diseases and the like by gluing things shut and coating them with this stuff. Likewise, during the winter if something dies in the hive that they can’t remove, they’ll encase it in propolis. Effectively mummifying the offending party as well as quarantining the resulting decay and putrefaction. Pretty neat, huh?
But why would propolis be considered one of the bee products? Because it’s pretty easy to harvest with a propolis trap and has been used since at least 350 B.C. according to this article on its uses. It is often used topically in a tincture form, and less often internally. From a self-sufficiency standpoint, medicine and health benefits are kind of top-priority for us. If something terrible happens and we have to truly support ourselves, there will be no more running to the drug store, after all.
Another famous use of propolis is as a part of various varnishes. Those of you with a heavy musical background might already know that Stradivarius used propolis in the varnish on his famous violins. While I’m not planning on creating any million dollar violins, I am excited to test out a propolis varnish.
This is where bee products get downright weird. Obviously, we’re aware that a bee hive contains plenty of bee venom. I think the sting to the face and subsequent allergy scare might have clued me in on that one… What took me by surprise was the idea that the painful part of a bee could be beneficial! At first, when I read that, I assumed they meant for something like immunotherapy for people with bad bee sting reactions. Surprisingly, (at least to me) that wasn’t the only use.
Bee venom is used to treat arthritis, multiple sclerosis, and nerve pain according to this short article on web MD. Who would ever have thought of trying that out? Sometimes scientists just seem to me like people crazy enough to attempt to cure a certain problem with a completely random solution. I guess the line between crazy and brilliant really is a fine one.
If bee venom was where bee products got weird. Royal jelly is where bee products get bizarre. Around the world, there are many nations that have accustomed themselves to a regular dairy diet. So drinking and eating stuff originally intended to be used to raise babies of a different species is not a foreign concept. Why then, does it seem so weird to drink ‘bee milk’?
That’s right. Royal jelly is what nurse bees feed to baby bees. If you look in your hive and see tiny larvae swimming in milky stuff, that’s royal jelly. I can’t imagine how tedious it would get to try and harvest the stuff in any real quantity! I just imagine someone stooped over a magnifying glass with a tiny eye-dropper for hours at a time…
Royal jelly has been sold around the world for a long time as a health supplement. It has medicinal claims everywhere from treating asthma to fighting cancer. Web MD has a brief list. However, you might notice from the Wikipedia article that royal jelly’s medicinal value has not been substantiated at this point. Indeed, it’s apparently being discouraged as a saleable item. However, when scientists know everything, I’ll expect them to be taken up to heaven. Until then, I’m willing to keep an open mind about the benefits of being fed like a baby bee.
There You Have It
That crazy long list sums up the majority of what your hive has to offer. Some bee products are pretty wild and out there, right? However, I think you’ll agree with me that there is more of interest inside the humble beehive than just honey. As we strive towards self-sufficiency, one of the great tasks and goals has to be learning how to do for ourselves those things we currently rely upon stores, pharmacies, and scientific know-how to provide for us.
I’m not saying quit your medicines and supplements and just guzzle honey.
What I am saying, is that we need to look for alternatives. Because one day, we might not have a choice.
For me and my bees? I’m going to stick by my tagline, knowing that we can become self-sufficient. Together.