by Katherine Stewart
Of all the planet's species, perhaps none is more contradictory than our own. Even as we swirl honey into our tea, for instance, we shudder at the sight of bees making their morning rounds. But bees are indispensable to our lives in more ways than we may realize. They do more than pollinate flowers and crops, important as that is. Bees are nature's pharmacists, too. They produce substances that can heal us and even, in some instances, save lives. Think of those yellow jackets as white coats.
The star performer in the bees' medical kit is propolis, a tar-like mixture of beeswax and resins. Worker bees use propolis to line the inside of their nests and brood combs, to repair small cracks in the hive, and seal brood cells. Propolis has antibacterial and antifungal properties, which protect bee colonies against diseases.
Those healing properties are part of the reason why human beings have treasured propolis for thousands of years. In Letters From the Hive: An Intimate History of Bees, Honey, and Humankind (Bantam, 2005), Stephen Buchmann, an associate professor of entomology at the University of Arizona in Tucson, writes that bees and bee products "have long inspired the human imagination, playing an important role in the evolution of myths, religious rituals, social traditions, and even a few taboos." Prehistoric men and women were avid honey-hunters, Buchmann reports, "and the treasure they found has been used not just as food but in medicinal preparations and the distillation of delightful intoxicants."
The medicinal properties of propolis have proved especially useful. Egyptian hieroglyphics depict bee propolis poultices being applied to wounds. The ancient Chinese, Greeks, and Romans, as well as native populations in the Americas and Hawaii, also used propolis as a salve and natural remedy. Romanians traditionally ingested bee propolis to strengthen their immune systems, and early estheticians in Sweden and Russia dabbed propolis on their clients' faces to strengthen capillaries and brighten sluggish complexions.
Taking a tip from the ancients, modern-day scientists are analyzing the benefits of propolis in research laboratories. A 2001 study in Anticancer Research argued that isolated components of Brazilian bee propolis inhibit the growth of human breast cancer cells. And another journal, Cancer Research, published a study showing that acids in bee propolis prevent the formation of precancerous tissues in rats after they are exposed to cancer-causing chemicals.
According to Buchmann, the flavones found in propolis are active against many bacteria and may also be useful in healing wounds. "Propolis also contains quercetin, a flavone that has both antiviral and capillary-strengthening properties," he notes. Some of the flavinoids in propolis are capable of scavenging free radicals and protecting lipids and may even inhibit melanoma and carcinoma tumor cells."
Catching the buzz, spas have begun to incorporate propolis-themed treatments into their menus. At the Spa at Cordillera in Vail, Colorado, the High Altitude Rescue Treatment is especially popular. This immune-boosting wrap begins with the application of a propolis-infused lotion, after which the body is wrapped to enhance absorption. To finish, warm coconut milk is gently massaged into the skin, leaving it moist and smooth.
"Bee propolis boosts the skin's immune system, which can be especially compromised when you are at a higher elevation than usual," says Cordillera's Spa Director Angie Brown.
One might think the high mountains of Colorado have nothing in common with the desert flats of Nevada. But propolis treatments are also popular in Las Vegas, where both natives and guests suffer from dry skin conditions.
At the Bellagio Spa & Salon, the Propolis Scalp Treatment is a hydrating process used to alleviate dry patches and flakiness. The experience begins with a one-on-one consultation with a specialist, who makes certain that the guest does not have an allergy to bee products, as honey, beeswax, and propolis provoke allergies or intolerances in a small group of people. Afterward, propolis is applied to the scalp in a technique similar to a hair color treatment. During the massage that follows, the guest feels a slight tingling sensation all over the scalp. A processing cap is then placed over the hair and the guest is put under a dryer for approximately fifteen minutes to seal in the treatment's benefits.next page >