Honey bees are the sole sources of honey and bees wax with usual qualities. Honey bees also produce propolis, a gummy substance made from tree sap that has anti-bacterial properties, and royal jelly and pollen for human consumption. Honey bee venom is extracted for the production of anti-venom therapy and is being investigated as a treatment for several serious diseases of the muscles, connective tissue, and immune system, including multiple sclerosis and arthritis
The production process consists of the following operations:
a) Pollen collection
b) Propolis collection
c) Royal jelly collection
d) Venom collection
a) Pollen Collection
Extreme care should be taken that pollen is not contaminated by bees collecting from flowers treated with pesticides. During, and for several days or weeks after treatment of fields or forests in an area of several square kilometers (in a circle of at least 3-42 km diameter) around the apiary, no pollens should be collected. This is independent of the method of pesticide application. Even systemic pesticides have been shown to concentrate in pollen of, for example coconut. Since a pollen pellet is collected from many flowers, even small quantities of pesticides per flower can be accumulated rapidly to reach significant concentrations.
Though pollen pellets are collected before they enter the hive, treatment of colonies for bee diseases, can contaminate the pollen pellets. Though, for example, cleaning of debris from the hive and bees regurgitating syrup, nectar or honey during collection of the pellets.
Pollen pellets are removed from the bees before they enter the hive. There are many designs of pollen traps some easier to clean and harvest, others more efficient or easier to install. The efficiency rarely exceeds 50%, i.e. less than 50% of the returning foragers loose their pollen pellets. Bees are ingenious in finding ways to avoid losing their pellets, like small holes or uneven screens and may even rob pollen from the collecting trays, if access is possible. Under some circumstances, pollen collection methods and regimes may interfere with normal colony growth or honey production. Therefore, standard beekeeping manuals should be consulted for the timing of collections.
Pollen should be collected daily in humid climates but less frequently in drier climates. To avoid deterioration of the pollen and growth of bacteria, molds and insect larvae, pollen should be dried quickly. Ants can remove considerable amounts from pollen traps. Studies indicate that losses can be to 30% in temperate climates.
Pollen needs to be dried to less than 10% moisture content (preferably 5% or 8% according to some laws) as soon as possible after harvesting. A simple method uses a regular light bulb so that the pollen does not heat to more than 40 or 45oc. For solar drying, the pollen suspended high enough above a pollen itself should be covered to avoid direct sunlight and overheating.
After drying, the pollen needs to be cleaned of all foreign matter. A tubular tumbler out of a wire mash with a fan can clean considerable quantities of pollen pellets. Simpler winning methods can be used too.
Since sunlight, i.e. UV radiation, destroys the nutrient value of pollen, other more subtle characteristics probably suffer worse damage. Storage of dry pollen in dark glass containers, or in dark cool places, is therefore a requirement.
Pollen used for cosmetic purposes should have the same, if not a better, quality than destined for consumption as food. The first quality control is assessment of gross contamination with foreign substances, i.e., parts of bee and hive debris. Further controls might include measurement of moisture content and a bacterial count. Determination of various agrochemicals, including drugs used inside bee colonies is possible and may be required in some circumstances. These analyses require sensitive, expensive chromatographic equipment.
b) Propolis collection
The average production of propolis per colony per year has been described as 10 to 300g but the production depends on the bees, the climate, the forest resources and the trapping mechanism. According to personal observations, it may occasionally be considerable higher. If there is any selection by queen breeders and beekeepers, it has been against heavily propolizing bees, since they make work in the apiary more difficult. Bees which produce larger quantities of propolis could be selected if required.
Contamination of propolis with wax, pieces of wood, paint and other debris should be avoided. The cleanest collection methods employ special traps placed on top of a hive, below the covers or next to lateral walls inside the hives. Thus bees do not mix as much wax with the propolis and no contamination occur during harvesting. Trap harvesting is also faster and may be more productive.
Traps are basically screens or special plates with small holes which simulate cracks in the hive walls. Bees try to seal the holes and thus fill the trap with propolis. The most economic trap design is an inner cover with a large hole, covered with regular nylon fly screen, secured in place by the points of nails and a perforated frame. The total area exposed by a screen may have to be varied according to the bees and local conditions. Trap harvested propolis usually fetches a better price because of its cleaner and therefore of better quality.
Light, and in particular air circulation are important to stimulate propolis use. Accordingly, traps placed on top of hives should be covered but the hive cover needs to be propped opened slightly to increase air circulation and to allow in some light. In tropical regions it may be necessary to prevent the entry of too much rain. Also, when using a type of bee sensitive to disturbances or likely to abscond, the lid should not be opened too far otherwise bees might escape. Newly established colonies should be given some time to establish themselves before they are used for trapping.
Propolis is removed from traps by cooling the plastic sheets or fly-screens for a few hours in a refrigerator or freezer. Once cooled, the propolis becomes brittle and can be removed from the screens by simply flexing and brushing them, pulling over a table edge or by using a special high pressure air device. The trap is then ready for re-use.
In general, propolis is fairly stable, but proper storage is important. Propolis and its extracts should be stored in airtight containers in the dark, preferably at less than 10oc-12oc and away from excessive and direct heat. For similar reasons, very old propolis from the hive should not be mixed with fresher propolis. Over 12 months of proper storage, propolis will lose very little or non of its antibacterial activities. Alcohol extracts may be stored even longer.