The composition of propolis varies from hive to hive, from district to district, and from season to season. Normally, it is dark brown in color, but it can be found in green, red, black, and white hues, depending on the sources of resin found in the particular hive area. Honey bees are opportunists, gathering what they need from available sources, and detailed analyses show that the chemical composition of propolis varies considerably from region to region, along with the vegetation. In northern temperate climates, for example, bees collect resins from trees, such as poplars and conifers (the biological role of resin in trees is to seal wounds and defend against bacteria, fungi and insects). “Typical” northern temperate propolis has approximately 50 constituents, primarily resins and vegetable balsams (50%), waxes (30%), essential oils (10%), and pollen (5%). Propolis also contains persistent lipophilic acaricides, a natural pesticide that deters mite infestations.
In neotropical regions, in addition to a large variety of trees, bees may also gather resin from flowers in the genera Clusia and Dalechampia, which are the only known plant genera that produce floral resins to attract pollinators. Clusia resin contains polyprenylated benzophenones. In some areas of Chile, propolis contains viscidone, a terpene from Baccharis shrubs, and in Brazil, naphthoquinone epoxide has recently been isolated from red propolis, and prenylated acids such as 4-hydroxy-3,5-diprenyl cinnamic acid have been documented. An analysis of propolis from Henan, China found sinapinic acid, isoferulic acid, caffeic acid, and chrysin, with the first three compounds demonstrating antibacterial properties. Also, Brazilian red propolis, largely derived from Dalbergia ecastaphyllum plant resin, has high relative percentages of the isoflavonoids 3-hydroxy-8,9-dimethoxypterocarpan and medicarpin. Other flavonoids commonly present include galangin and pinocembrin. Caffeic acid phenethyl ester (CAPE) is also a component of some varieties of propolis from New Zealand.
Occasionally, worker bees will even gather various caulking compounds of human manufacture, when the usual sources are more difficult to obtain. The properties of the propolis depend on the exact sources used by each individual hive; therefore any potential medicinal properties that may be present in one hive’s propolis may be absent from another’s, or from another sample in the same hive.
Traditional medicine and research
Propolis has been used in traditional medicine. Propolis is “possibly effective” for treating cold sores, genital herpes, and post-surgery mouth pain, but there is “insufficient evidence” to rate the effectiveness of propolis in treating these or other conditions.
Propolis is under preliminary research for the potential development of new drugs associated with control of Candida albicans and immunomodulatory effects.