Products of the Hive

Products of the Hive


Although the major honey bee product, both in terms of familiarity and profit, is honey, beeswax has long been considered an important hive product and a secondary source of materials and income. Other products of the hive-pollen, propolis, royal jelly, venom and bee brood-have been gained importance. Each of these has its own market and potential value that can be a source of income for beekeepers and related industries.

Beeswax has been historically used in candles, to sculpt figurines, beeswax paintings (batiking) and in casting metal even before the Bronze age. Beeswax figurines have survived from royal Egyptian tombs dating to 3400 BC In the tropics of northern Australia aborigines have used beeswax 30,000 to 50,000 years ago to sculpt waxen figurines. Manufacture Beeswax is manufactured by honey bees themselves. Originally believed to have been collected from flowers or made from pollen, beeswax was discovered in 1744 to be synthesized by four pairs of wax-secreting epidermal glands on the ventral side of worker abdomens.

Beeswax is produced by quiescent bees about 14 days old and worked into intricate complex double-sided hexagonal comb nest architectures. Among the >22,000 described bee species worldwide, wax is synthesized and used as a building material by only a few groups of mostly highly social colonial species. These include the worldwide genus of bumblebees (Bombus spp.) and their neotropical relatives the orchid bees and the extremely diverse and successful pantropical stingless bees (e.g. Melipona and Trigona).

Beeswax when first secreted by the wax glands appears as a translucent white ellipsoidal flake. Freshly constructed beeswax combs, prior to their use for food storage or larval growth, are similarly bright white. With storage or the first brood cycle, they become yellow to tan, and if several years old, can be almost brown-black in color. Fresh beeswax is soft to brittle with a slight balsamic taste. Its density is 0.95-0.96 with a melting range of 62-65oC. It is insoluble in water, but quite soluble in organic solvents such as chloroform, benzene or ether.

Beeswax is a complex mixture of lipids and hydrocarbons. Over 300 individual chemical components have thus far been identified from pure beeswax. One gram of beeswax can be worked into about 20 cm2 two-sided comb surface area. It requires about 55 grams of beeswax built into combs to store every kg of ripened and capped honey. Honey:wax ratios in standard equipment vary from about 17.8-19.8:1. In the U.S. one kg of beeswax is marketed for each 50 kg of honey.

Prior to invention of the centrifugal honey extractor, the wax was separated from the honey by squeezing/straining and washing with water. Today, beekeepers obtain their wax from three primary sources: wax cappings, bits of burr comb scrapings from hive bodies, and frames and old combs which are to be recycled. The best grades of commercial beeswax are light yellow and come from fresh honey cappings. For each metric ton extracted honey, only about 45-55 kg of beeswax results.

Various methods have been used to separate wax from honey, wax cocoons or brood: straining method, submerged brood chamber method, submerged sac method, solar wax melter, heated wax press and heated centrifugal method.

The simplest method with limited equipment or funds is to melt the combs in hot water and let the wax rise to the surface and harden. This material can then be strained and remelted/reformed into rectangular molds for shipment or sale.

Uses and Functions

The single largest consumer of beeswax is the cosmetics and related industries. It is used in various products including facial beauty creams, ointments, lotions, lipsticks, rouge and cold creams. The largest industry using beeswax as a raw material is the candle industry. Pure or mostly pure beeswax candles are demanded by the Roman Catholic church for use during religious services. The third largest user is the beekeeping industry itself for making into milled hexagonal-stamped beeswax foundation. Minor users are the pharmaceutical and dental industries where beeswax is used in salves, ointments, pill coatings, adhesive waxes and for impression and base plate wax.

Other minor uses of beeswax include uses in waterproofing materials, for floor and furniture polishes, for grinding/polishing optical lenses and as a minor ingredient in certain adhesives, children's crayons, candy and chewing gum, inks, nursery grafting, musical instruments, ski and ironing wax and wax for bow strings used in archery.

A lot medicinal literature concerning the use of beeswax for its potential health benefits for humans, has generally been disregarded by the medical profession in Western societies. However, beeswax and products of the bee hive have been used in local, traditional medicine for centuries. In the UK doctors have had success in treating hay fever patients with beeswax. hough U.S. exports of beeswax have increased somewhat, the source of the demand remains elusive.

As mentioned earlier, cosmetics use is increasing, and this undoubtedly explains some of the increase in demand. It must also be noted, that although the U.S. domestic production doesn't satisfy the domestic demand, the U.S. is among the top five exporters to the EU with a market share of 7.8% and 7.5% in 1992 and 1993 respectively. The import totals of beeswax to the U.S. by both quantity and value can be seen in Table 4. The import totals for unbleached beeswax also include a small amount of other insect waxes and spermaceti, which a wax derived from the head of the sperm whale. However, because beeswax is the main (insect) wax used, only a very small percentage of the total imports are other than beeswax and the import totals of beeswax is fairly accurate.


Propolis is a sticky plant-derived material used by bees as their available caulking, sealing, lining, strengthening, preserving and probably repellent material inside the hive and around the entrance. It is the material that sticks frames and other hive parts together. It is also found in a layer as a thin 'varnish' over all the inner surfaces of the hive including wax combs. Small cracks and holes in the nest cavity are often filled with propolis, damaged combs are repaired with propolis and objects that cannot be removed from the nest are frequently sealed with propolis. Propolis is soft and sticky at warm temperatures and can be molded to fill holes and gaps or spread over surfaces. At cool temperatures and as it ages, propolis becomes brittle and hard. It has antimicrobial properties and is an important part of the chemical arsenal within the hive for combating contamination and pathogen invasion. Propolis is a resinous material collected by foragers from a variety of plants, especially the buds of trees. Since propolis is a mixture of locally available plant exudates, it would be expected to differ from one locality to another and from colony to colony. Surprisingly, the composition of propolis samples from diverse sources is remarkably similar. Generally, no correlation between the composition of tropical propolis and the place of collection or bee species have been found. The chemical composition of propolis, however, varies from sample to sample due to the variety of plant resins, gums, exudates, etc., utilized by the bees and the collection techniques used by beekeepers to obtain propolis from the hive. Propolis consists of a mixture of resins, terpenes and volatile oils, and miscellaneous materials. The pharmacologically active constituents of propolis are found in fractions soluble in solvents such as alcohols. Propolis and some of its constituents exhibit a variety of biological and pharmacological activities. Propolis has had an ancient history as a curative agent in human health. It was known in the time of Aristotle and discussed in detail by Pliny, the Roman naturalist. Treatment of a variety of ailments including colds and sore throats, skin problems, stomach ulcers, burns, hemorrhoids, gum diseases and wounds have been reported. Clearly propolis has antibacterial and antifungal properties. Propolis appears not to be toxic to humans and mammals unless very large quantities are administered. Propolis can, however, over time become extremely irritating to a beekeper's hands, causing painful cracks in the skin. The shortage of rigorous research into both positive and negative potentials of propolis indicate that common sense and caution should be exercised in the use of propolis. Production and Commercial Uses of Propolis Commercial production of propolis is usually a difficult and time consuming operation. To obtain the highest grade and purity of propolis, special 'inserts' are usually placed in hives. These inserts provide spaces that mimic holes or cracks in the hive, thereby encouraging the bees to fill them with propolis. The resultant propolis is then collected, sorted and packaged. Hive scrapings, though an easier way to obtain propolis, are often contaminated with wood chips, wax and paint and are of lower commercial quality. In North America and Europe the main uses of propolis are as natural supplements and herbal medicines. These take the form of tablets in which propolis can be combined with a variety of other ingredients. Propolis is also used as an additive to skin lotions, beauty creams, soaps, shampoos, lipsticks, chewing gums, toothpaste, mouthwashes and even suncreens. Use of propolis tinctures for treatment of sore throats, cuts and skin rashes is also popular. In addition to uses for health, propolis is sometimes used as a varnish. One problem with propolis as a varnish is that it requires a very long time to dry beyond the sticky phase. The potential for propolis as an animal growth stimulant has also received some attention. Propolis is used more outside of the U.S. than inside the U.S.. The price of propolis varies greatly from country to country. In the U.S. and Canada wholesale prices are low, varying from US$4.50-US$13 per kg. In contrast, the price in New Zealand, where propolis is more widely used, has been as high as US$57 per kg. The potential supply of propolis in the U.S. is high, but with a low demand production is not likely to increase. The future of propolis might see some growth with the expanding health food awareness, especially in the area of lozenges for sore throats.

Royal Jelly

Royal jelly is a glandular secretion of young workers that is placed in queen cells as a food for larval queens. It is called royal jelly because it is the sole food of queen larvae. It appears that the composition of royal jelly remains relatively constant over different colonies, bee strains and time. Some variations can occur as a result of nutritional and age conditions of the secreting worker bees, and care of collection/care of storage of the royal jelly. The components with greatest variations in gross composition are probably the sugars, mainly because workers add different amounts of sugar to royal jelly depending upon the age of the queen larva. Vitamins are present in royal jelly in varying amounts. Levels of the B vitamins in royal jelly are generally high. Otherwise vitamins are in low to very low levels.

A wide variety of health and cosmetic properties have been attributed to royal jelly over the years. Nevertheless, no well designed controlled medical studies have demonstrated therapeutic effects for royal jelly. The most promising antibacterial and textural potential for royal jelly are as a topical cream with both cosmetic and antimicrobial action.

Royal jelly also has potential as a dietary ingredient in both human foods and for animals. Royal jelly is usually produced in colonies maintained for that purpose. The queen is removed and a frame containing artificial queen cells, each with a 12-36 hour old worker larva is inserted. Three days later the frame is removed, the larvae discarded and the royal jelly collected either with a wooden spoon or a soft suction tube. A good queen cup will yield about 200-300 mg of royal jelly. Once collected the royal jelly can be stored in a tight container in the refrigerator for several months, frozen or freeze dried until used. The main markets in the U.S. and Europe for royal jelly are the cosmetic industry which uses royal jelly in moisturizing and skin cream as well as a variety of other products, and the health food market. The antibacterial, cleansing and textural properties of royal jelly likely account for its popularity in cosmetics. In the health food market royal jelly is often added as a supplement to other ingredients and vitamins which can be taken either as capsules, as parts of beverages, in confectionaries or mixed with honey as a spread. The largest producers of royal jelly are China, Japan and Korea. Annual production levels in China have been 220-360 metric tonnes. However, it can expected that the production levels in China have increased as a result of a huge increase in the production of honey and other products of the hive. Japan is both a large producer and importer of royal jelly.


Pollen is the male reproductive cells. Pollen is usually transmitted from one flower to another by pollinators such as bees or by the wind. From the bee's point of view pollen is the most important product of the hive. Pollen supplies all the bee's nutrients. Without adequate pollen supplies which are obtained either through foraging or from stores in the form of 'bee bread', a colony could not exist. Historically, pollen was of little commercial or economic consequence to European or U.S. beekeepers. In the last several decades interest in pollen, however, has dramatically increased, first in Eastern Europe, later in Western Europe and in North America. One of the main reasons for growing interest in the U.S., has been the popularity of health foods and natural supplements. Bee collected pollen is not a uniform, distinct and easily characterized product. It consists of a blend of pollen grains derived from many plant species in a given locality. The problem of chemical analysis of pollen becomes even more difficult because plant pollen sources not only vary by locations throughout the world, but also by season and year in a given locality. Protein is a major component of pollen with an average value of almost 24%. Carbohydrates constitute about 27% of bee collected pollen and consist mostly of the simple sugars fructose and glucose. Some pollen also contains starch as high as 18% by weight. Pollen contains on average only 5% fat. Pollen contains substantial quantities of potassium, calcium and magnesium as well as high levels of iron, zinc, manganese and copper. It contains low levels of sodium, is rich in B vitamins and contains highly variable levels of vitamin C. Because of its high content of trace mineral elements and vitamins, pollen has potential as an excellent human food source. There are, however, adverse reactions reported by people who have consumed pollen including stomach and gastrointestinal upset. Another concern is the potential for allergic reactions to orally ingested pollen. Research indicates, however, that consumption of pollen entails only to trivial risk. Pollen has been used in the treatment of chronic prostatis, to help reduce the symptoms of hay fever, in treating a wide variety of ailments including ulcers, colds and infections.

Another benefit of pollen is its ability to help protect against the adverse effects of X-ray. The positive effects of dietary pollen in the medical regimen of cancer patients undergoing radiation treatment has been reported by Hernuss et al. A variety of animals are also known to feed on pollen and its use in animal diets appears promising.

Pollen is collected in the form of corbicular pellets removed from the legs of returning bees. A great variety of pollen traps have been developed for this purpose. Most use two screens with 0.58 mm diameter wires with 5 per 2.5 cm that are separated by about 5mm. Other traps use perforated metal plates with about 4.7 mm holes.

The design of a pollen trap is crucial both to the effectiveness of collecting pollen and to the welfare of the colony. The collected pollen should be free of contaminating insect parts, wax moths, debris, mold, etc. and must be kept dry. The trap must not unduly stress the colony by taking too much pollen. If too much pollen is removed from the foragers, severe stress including reduced brood rearing and decrease in honey production can occur. Traps that remove about 60% of the incoming pollen during heavy nectar flows appear about optimal and can be left in place year round with little adverse effect. Fryness and other factors of the pollen.

The market for pollen is mainly for human nutritional supplements, feeding to bees and as an animal food. Pollen is formulated for human consumption into a variety of appealing products including tablets, pollen granules, oral liquids, candy bars, tonics, etc. The production of pollen products for human consumption has been growing at a rapid rate. Prices of pollen products vary but can often yield high profits for the producer.

Bee Venom

Honey bee venom is a well-known pharmacologically active product of the hive. It is synthesized by the venom glands of workers and queens, stored in the venom reservoir and injected through the sting apparatus during the stinging process. A mature defender or forager contains about 100 ęg-150 ęg of venom and a young queen about 700 ęg. Bee venom is a bitter, hydrolytic blend of proteins with basic pH that is used by the bees for defense. The potential production and use of bee venom has been hindered by a general lack of medical research into its use for other than diagnosing and treating venom hypersensitivity and the suspicion of the medical profession for its use. Research has, however, indicated a possible use of bee venom for treatment of arthritis. Bee venom also serves as a raw material source for enzymes such as phospholipase A2 and highly active peptides. A technique involving simultaneous electrical stimulation of a large portion of the entire population of a bee colony is used in bee venom collection. The procedure works best with large colonies but has the disadvantage of making the bees extremely excitable and defensive, with bees stinging people who are within several hundred meters of the affected colony. Also this method appears to be a viable method mainly for honey bees. Virtually all commercial honey bee venom is now collected by means of the electrical stimulation technique. Exact production figures are unavailable, but probably small. For example in the U.S., all the venom needed, is produced by essentially one beekeeper. The price of bee venom on the U.S. open market varies greatly with a typical 1990 price of about US$100-200 per g and much higher for smaller quantities. Many European and Asian producers are also in the market and their prices, as well as those direct from beekeepers, can be considerably lower. Unless bee venom finds accepted usage in treatment of arthritis, its market potential is unlikely to increase.

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