There’s definitely a buzz in the air. For years, propolis, royal jelly and other supplements collected from beehives had an almost cultish following. These days the science supporting their use is respectable, if often overlooked.

“Propolis and other bee products have come of age,” says Michael Miles, ND, of Tucson, Arizona. “They contain antioxidants, have antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory effects, often help control allergies and provide topical skin protection.”

The substances found in beehives, including royal jelly, honey and pollen, are nutritionally and chemically complex. In people, they can enhance immunity and fight infections, and might even help some cancer patients.

Propolis. Bees use propolis as caulk to seal their hives, and its broad-spectrum antimicrobial and antifungal properties also protect the insects from infection. It’s rich in polyphenols and flavonoids, two families of antioxidants that also have anti-inflammatory benefits. Japanese researchers reported that propolis normalizes the activity of seniors’ natural killer cells, a type of immune cell. A combination of propolis and zinc can significantly reduce the risk of recurrent ear infections in children.

Dose: Take 200–500 mg daily.

Royal Jelly. This unique bee food modifies the genetic activity of larvae, turning them into queen bees. Topical applications of an ointment containing royal jelly can reduce mucositis, a painful inflammation and ulceration that cancer patients can experience from radiation treatments—and also speed the healing process. Healthy people benefit with improved blood sugar levels, increased red blood cell counts and even better moods.

Dose: Take 500–1,500 mg daily.

Bee Pollen. Bee pollen contains amino acids, vitamins, minerals and carbohydrates, though in relatively small
amounts. In a placebo-controlled study of 139 men with chronic noninfectious prostatitis, taking bee pollen reduced pain and led to improvements in overall quality of life.

Dose: Begin by taking only one granule the first day. Increase the dose by one granule each day until you are taking 1 teaspoon. Do not use if you have pollen allergies because of the risk of anaphylactic shock.

Honey. Raw honey is used in developing countries as a wound and burn dressing—what Evan Paul Cherniack, MD, of the University of Miami Health System calls a “most intriguing use.” Honey’s antibacterial effect derives from its acidic pH (about the same as tomato juice), the antiseptic effect of small amounts of hydrogen peroxide and an osmotic effect that destroys bacteria through dehydration. One study found that honey dressings helped heal painful pilonidal cysts. When using as a wound dressing, opt for raw and preferably organic honey.

Dose: Apply liberally to gauze, and place over wound.

Check your sources

To avoid getting stung by a subpar product, know its source. Many companies in the United States and new Zealand obtain raw materials directly from beekeepers. That's not the case in China, where beekeepers sell their products to middlemen, who in turn sell to wholesalers and retailers worldwid.e Another concern: Some Chinese bee products may be contaminated with antibiotics or lead or diluted with high-fructose corn syrup.

Bruce Brown, president of Phoenix-based C.C. Pollen, speaks of bees with reverence. "Everything in the beehive has either nutritional or medical applications," he says. Done right, eh says, beekeeping is good for bees. "Western (aka European) honeybees collect and store excessive amounts of honey and bee pollen, so much so that the bees will keep filling boxes of honeycomb if the boxes are there." But large-scale beekeeping operations often remove the honey and replace it with corn syrup and water. That, adds Brown, harms bees' intestinal flora nad ultimately their health.