Honeybees have kept humans company for nearly as long as dogs, cats, and other domestic animals. Ancient Egyptian, Greek, Mayan, and Chinese civilizations, among others, are known to have harvested honey and wax from beehives. It is unsurprising, then, that a multitude of uses for these products has been found over such a long period of time.
While many of the folk-uses of honey and beeswax are still of questionable basis, science has recently taken more of an interest in honeybees and is beginning to discover that many of the myths may not be unfounded.
Honey is the best-known product of honeybees; it tastes so good that its position of first among known products is well-earned. Honey is created by bees who harvest nectar from local flowers (estimated 2 million flowers per pound of honey!). During this process, the bees are also fulfilling their very necessary function as crop pollinators; if honeybees were to suddenly become extinct, the world’s crop production would drop dramatically.
The nectar is collected in the hive and digested by the bees, then allowed to ‘brew’ (moisture is evaporated) before being placed in wax compartments which are sealed for storage. In general, honey contains mostly sugars, but also Vitamin A, beta-carotene, and B-vitamins, as well as magnesium, sulfur, phosphorus, iron, calcium, chlorine, potassium, iodine, sodium, copper, and manganese…quantities of these and other ingredients, however, will vary considerably with the plant source from which the honey was made. It is believed that to some extent, richness of antioxidants correlates with richness of color, so darker honeys may be preferable in terms of vitamin content. Honey has shown initial demonstrations of improving performance in athletes (over other sugars), and has a lower glycemic index than most sweeteners. A word of warning, though, that honey contains bacteria that can be harmful to children under the age of 1 year, so it should not be ingested by babies!
The same vitamins and minerals that make honey great for eating also lend it usefulness as a cosmetic ingredient. Honey is an emollient and a humectant, which means it draws in moisture. This makes it excellent for moisturizing soaps and masks for your body and hair, and even better for lip balms (because it tastes so good!). Honey can be enjoyed by simply pouring a bit into your bath, using a little in your hair after a shampoo, or massaging it into your face an body.
Another folk-use of honey, which is finding some support in recent research, is for treating infections. High (very high!) concentrations of sugar alone will kill bacteria, but honey contains an added benefit: an enzyme (glucose oxidase) used by the bees in production creates hydrogen peroxide. While this enzyme is destroyed in honey that has been heat-sterilized, those worried about using unpasturized honey can find honey pasteurized by gamma-radiation. It is speculated that some honeys contain added benefits of antibacterial agents from the plants sources, but this can vary so widely from one type of honey to another that the effects are not well understood. Because the antibacterial effects of honey can vary (up to 100-fold) depending on type, please be sure to research which kind you’re getting before use!!!!
While little research has been done on the uses of bee pollen, it is widely celebrated as a high-protein, nutrient-dense energy source, and may be worth trying next time you visit your local health-food store. Propolis (bee-glue) is in a similar position of interest; while it appears to have similar anti-bacterial properties to honey, as well as cosmetic uses for beauty creams and conditioners, little definitive research exists. Royal jelly (the food given to young queens) has been said to increase health when taken internally, and improve skin, particularly wrinkles and dryness, when applied externally, but again science has not yet caught up with the folk lore.
Beeswax is most famous for its use in candles, followed closely by use in art (paintings and casts). Beeswax is produced by young worker bees from glands in the abdomen. After gorging themselves on honey, the wax is secreted from the glands, then ‘chewed’ by the honeybees until it softens and can be used for building. Only about 1 pound of beeswax is produced per 60 pounds of honey. Beeswax is the only wax available in some places, and is still used for purposes such as grafting (of plants), surgical waxes, and adhesives. Beeswax candles are famous for their slow-burning, non-smoking properties. The temperature at which beeswax melts is around 60-65C. Although more expensive than many types of wax, beeswax burns relatively slowly, is relatively dripless (unless there is a draft), and emit very little smoke. Beeswax that has undergone less processing will also emit a sweet, honey-like odor that many people enjoy.
As a cosmetic ingredient, beeswax is soothing and protective to the skin. It used to be used in cold creams, to help protect skin and replace lost fats and moistures, until cheaper synthetic products became available. You can still find it in health food stores, and probably in many of the products on this website…it makes a great base for lip balms and salves, particularly.
Molan, P. C. "A brief review of the use of honey as a clinical dressing." Primary Intention (The Australian Journal of Wound Management) 6 (4) 148-158 (1998)
The U.S. Personal Care Market and Honey,"
National Honey Board, Product Research/Food Technology Program, May 1997.