Beekeeping in Vermont

Beekeeping in Vermont

(A version of this article first appeared in the November 2020 issue of Bee Culture)

As I sit down to write this article some 900,000 people have died world-wide as a result of Covid-19. The disease is associated with the development of pneumonia, serious breathing problems as the lungs fill with fluid, and heart failure.

The United States leads the rest of the globe in Caronavirus related deaths, with the American death toll at 190,000 and climbing. We have less than 5 percent of the world’s population but have experienced over 20 percent of the world’s Covid-19 deaths despite being the country with the most expensive and supposedly best health care system in the world.

In the midst of this dire situation comes a review of the healing properties of propolis and its potential use in treating Covid-19 that appears in the November issue of Biomedicine and Pharmacotherapy. We already know that propolis ramps up the immune response of honey bees when they are exposed to pathogens, but now it appears increasingly likely that propolis may be able to do something similar for us humans.

In the paper, Propolis and its potential against SARS-CoV-2 infection mechanisms and Covid-19 disease, Running Title: Propolis against SARS-CoV-2 infection and Covid-19, the authors, Andresa Berretta, Marcelo Silveira, Jose Capcha, and David De Jong, point out that controlling Covid-19 has been a challenge. Tests that determine if people are infectious or were previously infected are not widely available, expensive, and often do not provide timely and accurate results. Shelter at home and other isolation measures do not provide effective protection for essential workers, especially health care personnel, who have contracted the disease and are dying at alarming rates. Quarantine measures have limited usefulness due to economic and other necessities especially among people with modest incomes. Thus, any options that can help reduce the impact of this pandemic and its consequences, even a little, would be useful.

Benefits of natural remedies

Medical researchers have identified the SARS-CoV-2 virus as the cause of Covid-19. Among the options to deal with this virus are adjuvant treatments. Adjuvants are typically natural remedies that are inexpensive, readily available and rarely have undesirable side effects. The advantage of using natural remedies is that folks with additional health problems, or flu-related symptoms, who are unable to get to often overcrowded medical facilities can take simple and inexpensive measures to help reduce the effects of SARS-CoV-2 infection until they are able to access proper medical care.

One potential adjuvant that shows great potential is the propolis that is being produced in your bee hives. Propolis has already been used successfully and an adjuvant in vaccines for cattle and mice. The review paper identifies numerous reasons to be optimistic about the potential for propolis to help us deal with the current human pandemic. For example, studies have shown that extracts of propolis and some of its components are able to prevent the ability of the virus to enter cells in the body.

Propolis and Covid-19 complicating conditions

People with hypertension and diabetes have a greater chance of requiring intensive medical care should they come down with Covid-19 symptoms. The data also indicates that people with cardiovascular disease, including hypertension and diabetes are more likely to die from Covid-19. The good news is that studies have shown that propolis can alleviate diabetes, hypertension and cardiovascular disease in animals, and this provides considerable evidence that these benefits might carry over to humans.

Criticisms and cautions

The lack of human studies is only one of the criticisms that have limited the widespread use of propolis as a health promoting supplement in human medicine. Another issue preventing the acceptance of propolis for therapeutic use is the lack of standardization and the wide variance in the components and biological activity of most propolis products on the market. Unlike beeswax, royal jelly, and honey bee venom which are produced within the body of the bee and whose characteristics are fairly consistent where ever honey bees are found in the world, propolis is made from the resins of trees and other plants. Thus, the characteristics of propolis and its efficacy in treating illness will vary depending on the types of vegetation found in the vicinity of the colony. It is simply not possible to have identical batches when working with natural products like propolis; therefore, standardization is needed in order to validate safety and efficacy studies and guarantee useful characteristics and consistent results when a product is introduced to the market. Thankfully standardized propolis products have been developed that by World Health Organization standards are safe and without risk of drug interaction. This may help to fill the need during the pandemic for products whose bioactive components are confirmed and effectiveness consistent.

So far theoretical computer models have identified a number of components in propolis as potential allies in the battle against Covid-19. Lab studies in test tubes and culture dishes will be needed to evaluate this potential and identify the most promising compounds before human trials can begin.

Immune stimulation

Some research indicates that propolis can act to stimulate the immune system generally improving immune response in people that are challenged by diseases and infectious organisms. This could be especially helpful since the caronavirus disrupts the immune response in the initial phases of infection which helps to facilitate replication of the virus. The benefits of propolis are also theorized to potentially reduce the severe inflammatory response which can damage the lungs and other organs in the later stages of the disease.

One of the lines of research being utilized by pharmaceutical companies working to develop a vaccine for Covid-19 is to target the inflammatory compounds produced in the blood of patients with severe Covid-19 compared to those with mild symptoms. Since the molecular mechanisms involved in the immune process targeting these inflammatory compounds are stimulated by propolis, there is reason to be optimistic about the potential of propolis to minimize symptoms and the harmful effects of Covid-19 infection.

Propolis has a long and well established history of use for its antibacterial, antifungal, and antiviral properties. Since bacterial infection is a common complication in Covid-19 the use of propolis is expected to be helpful when used in conjunction with any conventional treatments that are applied.

Our modern medicines typically have a single or sometimes a few active components. Propolis on the other hand has hundreds of components many of which can help treat diseases and associated complications. The strong healing potential of propolis has inspired a clinical trial of Brazilian green propolis extract (EPP-AF) for the treatment of Covid-19 patients. Propolis is relatively easy to obtain, is low cost, is relatively risk-free, has minimal interaction with pharmaceutical drugs, enjoys a long history of therapeutic use, does not require a prescription, and has known biological activities. While more research is needed to uncover the specific benefits propolis may provide to people suffering from the SARS-CoV-2 virus, some are suggesting that except in the rare cases where people may develop an allergy to it; propolis may be useful during the current pandemic as a prophylactic treatment, especially for high risk groups. While most studies have used daily dosages of 500 mg/day (the equivalent of about 30 drops of tincture 3-4 times a day) safely, one study testing propolis on dengue fever prescribed 1200 mg/day (400 mg three times a day) for a period of one week with no harmful effects suggesting that dosages of more than 500 mg/day could be useful in severe cases of Covid-19.

According to projections from the influential Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation the U.S. death toll from Covid-19 could more than double the current rate reaching 410,000 deaths by January 2021. The institute projects the daily death toll to grow to about 3,000 per day by December 2020. Of course trying to predict the future is extremely difficult since many unexpected things can happen between now and then. For example, the institute projects that 120,000 lives could be saved if 95 percent of the country regularly wore face masks. Given the politicalization of such simple solutions, knowing about a safe, inexpensive, and easy to obtain product such as propolis might just mean the difference between life and death.

Ross Conrad is the author or Natural Beekeeping and The Land of Milk and Honey: A history of beekeeping in Vermont.