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All sweetness and light?

Honey is traditionally considered the major product of beekeeping. However, with increasing knowledge about beekeeping and an awareness of the beneficial aspects of many bee products, the use and demand for other products is increasing. The inclusion of "natural" bee products in cosmetics, medicines and foods has improved consumer appeal and, with the increasing multitude of possible uses for bee products, beekeepers can diversify their activities and generate greater income.

Honey

For thousands of years, honey was the only source of concentrated sugar in most regions of the world and today it is still valued as a nutritious food. Honey is a stable commodity with a long shelf-life; if harvested carefully it will remain wholesome for several years. As a food, honey is valued for its high calorie content and ease of digestibility, which makes it particularly suitable for young and old people, and those that have been sick. Honey is also widely used in medicinal applications, particularly in Asia where is it rarely consumed other than for medicinal purposes. In the Koran, honey is mentioned as a cure-all and is particularly noted as good for wound protection and as a treatment for burns but in Africa, honey is mainly used for brewing honey beer.

Wax

Beeswax is often used for batik makingFor generations, beeswax has been valued for its use in candles (due to its naturally high melting point) but it has also been widely used in medicinal applications and in cosmetics. It has been, and remains, the most versatile and most widely used of all the primary bee products and, even though in many cases beeswax has been replaced with cheaper, synthetic waxes, there continues to be a scarcity of beeswax on the world market. However, in developing countries, wax is often wasted or, if harvested, it is exported and only relatively small proportions are used in local industry. Although wax is produced by many bee species, Apis mellifera wax is generally more favoured and, in particular, the cosmetics industry prefers beeswax produced in Africa.

Pollen & bee bread

Bees collect pollen as a high protein product to feed young bees and brood in the hive. However, it is usually fed to young brood as 'bee bread', that is pollen which has been stored in the cells of the comb and undergone a natural fermentation process. Although not a 'perfect food' as so often claimed, its nutritional value could be useful to those with unbalanced or deficient diets. In developing countries, the use of bee bread may be more preferable to fresh pollen because the nutritional value is higher, the product has a longer shelf life and it can more easily be transported to market. It is also attributed with antibiotic properties and honey can be added to make it less sour and more attractive to taste. However, pollen products can be contaminated with agro chemicals, air pollutants and microbes and nutrient degradation can occur during inadequate storage. Direct consumption of pollen may also aggravate allergies.

Bee products include honey, and candles
credit: Susie Emmett

Propolis

Propolis is vital to the health and wellbeing of the hive as it has anti-microbial properties, derived from resins produced by trees to protect flower buds and new plant growth against disease. These substances are then mixed with varying amounts of beeswax for use in the hiveby worker bees to line all nest cavities and brood combs, to seal all cracks and brood cells and even to make the hive entrance smaller. Propolis has been used since the time of Egyptians and, in Africa today, it is used as a medicine, an adhesive for tuning drums, and for sealing cracked water containers or canoes, amongst other uses. There is a wide range of medicinal properties attributed to this bee product, particularly in treating infections and it can be used in a variety of different ways (tinctures, lotions and powder form). It is also mixed with honey for daily consumption to build up the immune system. Harvesting of propolis can be done with normal cleaning of the hive but a more effective method is to use a plate, placed at the top of the hive, with small holes, which the bees seal with propolis as a means of insulation.

Royal Jelly

Worker bees produce royal jelly, the food of the queen bee, by a special gland in their heads. As the only food the queen bee receives as a larvae and as an adult, royal jelly enables it to live, on average, for three and a half years whilst a worker bee lives for only forty-five days. The food also enables the queen to lay three times her own bodyweight in eggs per day. Demand for royal jelly continues to grow but despite its value as a food supplement and for use in cosmetics, royal jelly is not a bee product that most small-scale beekeepers would wish to produce because it requires considerable expertise and time as well as access to cold storage.

Bee venom

Although there is increasing interest in apitherapy, there is still only a limited market for bee venom. Collection of bee stings requires electro-shock treatment and this is not generally recommended for the more aggressive Africanized honeybees and can leave even European bees unsettled for up to a week. Specialist skills are required for such mass collection although adult bees may be used to sting a patiently directly. Applications of bee venom include treatment of arthritis and for other conditions or injuries where it appears to have an anti-inflammatory effect. (See also Bees - all sweetness and light? Focus On 99-3).

Adult and larval honeybees

In many developing countries, brood combs are considered a delicacy and in parts of Asia, worker or drone pupae are also prepared for human consumption by pickling or boiling. However, the major use of larval and adult bees is undoubtedly for the production of bee products. Although not considered a primary product, the production of complete colonies, starter colonies and packages of bees or queens can produce considerable additional income and beekeepers can also charge for pollination services (see The benefit of bees).

Information sources:
Value-added products from beekeeping, FAO Agricultural Services Bulletin No. 124
Honey By products by Anton Schehle Honey Bee Farms, Pretoria, South Africa
Apitherapy by Comvita

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