Not Just Honey: A Look at Bee Products

Several bee species are endangered worldwide, and the urgency to save them is frequently (and rightfully) associated with their necessity to our food supply. honeycombNonetheless, they also directly supply us with products that can function as health aids.

Honey, “the nectar of the gods,” is the superstar and main feature of bee production. I personally love it for a number of reasons, including that fact that I successfully used raw, local honey to treat my seasonal allergies years ago and have not had to struggle with allergies since. It’s also awesome that , unlike other food, honey never has an expiration date, and honey from 3000 years ago is still safe to eat.

The ingredient is a cough suppressant, and it can even be useful for treating the common cold. There’s also evidence that it can help lower blood pressure or cholesterol. And it’s a delicious natural sweetener.

Honey is easy for beekeepers to harvest without harming or disturbing the worker bees, but there are actually several other products beekeepers can collect from the work of bees that can be beneficial to our health.

If you’ve only ever heard about honey, don’t worry. Here’s the lowdown on every product that is produced by those worker bees and how beekeepers harvest these products.

Bee Pollen

Finding this ingredient on a smoothie recipe set me on the path to learn more about bee products and how these bee products are harvested. Bee pollen is a superfood available at health food stores. It can be tan, yellow, orange or brown and vary in taste from slightly bitter to sweet and nutty.

While people with allergies may balk at the idea of voluntarily ingesting pollen, this is not the same pollen that is found on plants or falling from trees. Instead this special pollen is a mixture of male reproductive cells of flowers and digestive enzymes from bees.

It is made as the bees carry the plant pollen between their legs, mixing it with their saliva, until it forms a seed-shaped grain that is rich in vitamins, minerals, enzymes, amino acids and antioxidants.

To collect the bee pollen, beekeepers can attach a screen in the entrance of a hive to allow the bee to enter while also removing the pollen granules from their legs. The beekeepers must be careful not to collect too much at a time, though, as this is also a food source for the bees.

Bee Venom

Scientifically named apitoxin, this is the very venom that makes bee stings so painful. While it can be given as a shot for rheumatoid arthritis, nerve pain (neuralgia), multiple sclerosis (MS), swollen tendons (tendonitis) and muscle conditions such as fibromyositis and enthesitis, there isn’t a whole lot of research showing it is effective.

It has, however, proven to be effective in reducing allergic reactions to actual bee stings. Bee venom immunotherapy provides 98% to 99% protection from reactions to bee stings. Even once immunotherapy is stopped, the risk of reaction over the next 5 to 10 years is about 5% to 15%.

To collect the bee venom, modern beekeepers use devices that deliver a mild electric current causing the bees to sting. They release their venom but the mechanism does not trap or harm their stingers. Older methods of collecting bee venom cause bees to lose their stingers, and loss of a stinger means death to a bee.

Royal Jelly

Royal jelly is a nutrient rich, thick milky substance made from pollen and honey by nurse bees. It contains all of the B vitamins, as well as amino acids, potassium, magnesium, calcium, zinc and iron. Consumers have used the ingredient to treat menopausal symptoms, hormonal imbalances and high cholesterol.

It rightfully earns its name because it is bestowed upon the chosen queen bees from birth. In fact, the diet of royal jelly is the only factor that distinguishes a queen bee from a worker bee. While all bees begin the first three days of their life with a diet of royal jelly, only bee larvae that are chosen to become queens by the hive are bathed in royal jelly throughout the rest of their development and ultimately the rest of their lives.

When a hive needs a new queen, it will choose up to 10 larvae less than three days old and begin feeding them royal jelly. The first one to fully develop will sting the others, killing them before they can hatch.

To harvest royal jelly, beekeepers must stimulate this process of queen selection with movable frames in a queenless colony.

Honeycomb (Beeswax)

Honeycomb is the hexagonal cells made up of beeswax that compose the interior of a beehive. Honeybees consume the honey and then secrete beeswax from their lower abdomens, where it flakes off. These flakes are then chewed by worker bees, who form them into hexagonal cells. These cells become the rooms of the hive that are used to store honey and larvae.

Honeycomb contains the same benefits of honey and bee pollen, or royal jelly if it is present. Having a chewy texture, the waxy cells can be chewed as a gum to earn these benefits, but doctors recommend not swallowing too much of it.

Some manufacturers produce reusable food storage wraps by coating beeswax with cotton. These products are compostable alternatives to single-use plastic wraps.

But Bee Careful

While bee products have numerous health benefits, if you have an allergy to bees, avoid ingesting bee products or speak to your doctor or allergist before doing so. When you find a beekeeper or company that uses sustainable and humane practices for harvesting these products from bees, indulge in nature’s purest medicine.

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Comments (3)

    • Hi Morgan,

      That’s a good point. Based on my limited research, it seems to depend on how beekeepers operate. Some of them take the honey in a way that disrupts the hive and leads to bees dying. Others are very careful and even go out of their way to ensure the bees can still thrive after the ingredients are harvested.

    • Bee products can be harvested and taken in a way that is sustainable. Also, many hives will overproduce honey and wind up with hives that can no longer support young, which leads to hive collapse and the loss of a queen and her future offspring.

      Many honey producing bees do best with careful care, especially as climate changes and the plants they are accustomed to change or die off. Bee-keeping is vital for a sustainable honey-bee population, and honey bees are necessary pollinators. Bee keeping in areas where crops are grown makes a massive difference in the sustainability of crop growth, and bee keeping anywhere supports local ecosystems in a way that is truly vital.

      But bee keeping itself is only economically sustainable if keepers get paid for honey and wax – the good news is, this can be sustainable, and does not need to harm bees. There’s a world of difference between commercially harvested honey etc. and sustainable honey/ other bee products. (Commercial hives can harm bees and do not do as much to contribute to local ecosystems, sadly).

      There are also other ways to support bees, like planting native flower species and putting up bee houses for non-hive type bees to hibernate in! I have a wee bee house on my balcony and it’s great for having a flourishing garden, and for making friends with native non-hive dwelling bees.

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