Aromatherapy is a strange beast that defies description. The very word lends itself to random interpretation and depending upon which country you are in, is either a fun thing to be in or is something that can land you in hot water with the authorities. The length of time you have been in the therapy or industry can sometimes be credited like war medals. We have all seen the game played that so and so has been a therapist for 10 years, for 15 and beyond. This struck me the other day when reading a competitors advert to discover that they had been around a lot longer than my company. This seems strange as I remember them coming into the industry very well. So apart from the fact that there seems to be different time streams in aromatherapy it got me thinking about ages and the real origins of aromatherapy. Who were the first aromatherapists? To answer that question of course, you are back to the "what is aromatherapy" syndrome. Well, as usual, the mind wanders back to the origins in the Fertile Crescent or perhaps central Asia. In the thought process of this information, I got around to thinking about the contribution the Cretan Minoan civilisation had made and their undoubted contribution to the art world. Their frescos show not only their ability to use colour and form, but demonstrate that their senses would have been delighted by perfume as much as any Egyptian. Modern day Crete has a small essential oil industry that possibly finds its roots way back in time so probably staking as much claim to the originality of aromatherapy as anywhere else. Those that know the area and love its countryside, history and archaeology will know that the legends attribute the birthplace of Zeus to the Cretan cave where the god was fed upon milk and honey. In the Dionysian mysteries, honey too played an important part. Even today you can't go far in that part of the world without being offered at least yoghurt and honey. In the museums fine examples can be found of gold jewellery, based upon a design of interlocking bees. Although he labyrinth is perhaps the best known of the wonders of the Minoan civilisation, the use of the bee symbol seems to indicate that there was as much a cult in this direction as in the Minotaur. It is suggested that the pictures of bee, swallow and dolphin hark back to a preceding culture, perhaps a matriarchal society of a Utopian nature. I certainly don't want to get into a discussion of Greek or other mythology, but it does so happen that fragrance, health and the bee are interconnected. In fact, for the purposes of this article, I would like to propose that the bee is once and for all, the oldest aromatherapist! Sometimes I feel in our desire to sanitise, to commercialise or to regulate aromatherapy we can easily loose sight of its natural origins and roots. The different schools have opinions that throw up differences of opinion or emphases that can quickly turn into absolutes. Someone said to me the other day that no-one would think of honey as an aromatherapy product. I found this very odd as both beeswax and honey provide for the perfumer an absolute which underpins many fine fragrances and has certainly appeared in the context of aromatherapy underpinning rose, for example. Now before someone says we shouldn't use absolutes, let me be clear that this is not the point under discussion. One therapist may choose one substance over another in a particular form of therapy. That is not the issue. What I am trying to establish is that the bee, or the products of the bee and hive have a reputable place in aromatherapy and that in our desire to analyse everything, indeed sterilise everything, we forget the natural origins of the materials we use. Our ancestors recognised the value of hive products and certainly used them not only in the sense of the food of the gods, the meli kraton, but in everyday life for healing in the context of fragrance. We are all familiar with the caduceus symbol and there are ancient examples of the bee being used in a similar manner. From Dalmatia comes the healing symbol of the bee, whereby the proboscis is replaced by the twisted end of the caduceus. So if it appears that the original aromatherapist, so to speak, and the insect's value, was recognised by our ancestors, then we today should give some thought to how we can use its products to advantage. There are lots of insects which resemble bees, but most people are able to recognise bees when they are met. We are probably all familiar with their buzzing and have a rough idea of what of they look like. From the aromatherapist's point of view, the legs are probably the most interesting part, because they are fitted with systems to collect pollen and to manipulate wax. On each hind leg is situated a pollen basket, in which the bee stores pollen grains after being masticated with saliva whilst out foraging. The front legs are fitted with a little brush, by means of which the pollen is scraped from the flowers and then transferred to the hind leg pollen baskets. In the abdomen of the bee is found the honey sac, in which nectar is carried back to the hive. The life of the bee is principally searching for nectar and pollen, followed by constructing the hive. The bee, then, gives to us the following materials- beeswax, honey, pollen grains, Royal Jelly and propolis. All of these can be used to a lesser or greater extent in aromatherapy. Even the aroma, as I mentioned above, can be used to give a feeling or warmth and satiation. In the early stages of learning aromatherapy in some schools, perhaps in the preparation of creams, one is taught how to use beeswax. Beeswax is the building material used by the bee to construct the honeycomb. There are three major beeswax products - yellow beeswax, white beeswax (bleached) and beeswax absolute. Beeswax is generally used as a thickener and emulsifier to stiffen up creams, salves and balms. It is also used to make furniture polish or floor polish and is used extensively in the food industry. I always recommend the yellow beeswax in its natural state and seek out the most fragrant that can be found. Different areas will produce slightly different aromas from the flowers that the bees have been foraging upon. Beeswax is not thought of as a medicine in itself but some traditions certainly do use it, dissolved in hot wine or alcohol for treating anything from hiccups to diarrhoea.
A high quality, aromatic yellow beeswax can make a valuable contribution to a therapeutic balm base. It is generally regarded as non-toxic and inert. However, I would introduce a word of caution and controversy. Our humble friend the bee, which has served us so well for millennia in terms of pollination is now also the carrier of pollen from different types of crops, including genetically modified organisms. Pollen as we know can cause allergic reactions in many people (hay fever) and this cross pollination could possibly lead to unexpected allergic reactions. It is therefore not unknown for some people to react to beeswax. Not unnaturally, industry would therefore prefer to promote its white version or light version rather than the natural form. Honey is stored in the wax combs. Yummy honey has always been regarded as a health or even life sustaining food. Like anything else, the nearer to nature you get, the better and you can become a connoisseur of honey just as you can with essential oils or wine. Basically it is made of different types of sugar secretion, dextrose and levulose in particular. But honey also contains small levels of minerals, acids, vitamins such as B l and 82, C as well as essential oils. An interesting point about honey is that it can be used to make extracts. Honey herb extracts have been in use in traditional medicine over a number of years. This form of extract pays particular attention to aromatic plants and I think a case can be made out using honey that is specific to a flower, for example lavender honey, linden blossom or lime blossom honey, heather honey, clover honey and so on, all of which obviously contain the aromatic principals from the plants. This is a very pleasant way to look at consuming minute amounts of essential oils. Honey too, has been considered a preservative for many years. It has anti bacterial or microbial activity. Honey crops up in many products, not only as a sweetener or a raw food, but as a skin conditioner, especially in hand creams and body lotions. The association of essential oils with honey is very much under utilised. This is probably due to the emphasis that the industry has on selling essential oils and the way that the therapy has lent itself to the medicalisation of what after all, began as a natural therapy. Honey can easily be added to the aromatherapist's repertoire, even as a simple alternative to sugar. Please however keep in mind that most commercial honey is heated and the production methods change the nature of the natural sugars into fast releasing sugars. So again, my preference, as with beeswax, is to buy untreated honey from small, local producers and as with most things natural, you have to pay a price. It's a tragedy that so many so called natural therapies still put price above value. Often this is based upon ignorance or a belief that anyone who charges a higher price is running a scam. If you believe this, go and get a honey off your supermarket shelf then really compare the taste with a small local natural producer. If your nose and taste buds can't tell the difference, well.......! Look out for labels that say raw or unheated honey. Traditional Eastern medicine has always said that heated honey is harmful. This of course is a traditional view but the changing natures of the sugars by processing would support this. Perhaps the hive product that has had the most hype over the years, and probably hasn't done it much good as a result, is Royal Jelly. Royal Jelly is the essential food for the bees, that is fed to them within the first few days of their life. It's also the daily food of the queen bee during her life. The claims that are made for Royal Jelly, other than its nutritive and energetic principals is that it increases the oxygen consumption of tissues, improves metabolism and it increases resistance to stressful situations, increasing vitality. Those aside, Royal Jelly certainly has bactericidal and antibiotic properties. It contains amino acids and a host of vitamins, B 1,2,3,5,6,7,8 and 12, as well as A, C, D and E. It too contains minerals and trace elements, and an antibiotic factor. Royal Jelly is indicated in all areas of fatigue as a supplement but externally, it is used to strengthen the capillary system so maybe looked at where thread veins are concerned. Like everything else, Royal Jelly is subject to quality issues and one of the problems in the past has been the dilution of the quality to an acceptable price point. Most of the Royal Jelly around comes from China and it is said that the better grades come from the north eastern provinces. Those aromatherapists working with skin care products should consider a Royal Jelly extract if preparing materials for premature ageing or mature skins.In the supplement market there are a variety of forms of Royal Jelly, either fresh or freeze dried and it would be sensible to consult a qualified nutritionist or to obtain the fullest information on the source of these materials before using them. Some products from the Far East have been found to be contaminated with heavy metals and these are not such a good idea to ingest! For external application it is usual to use an extract of Royal Jelly rather than the material as used in supplementation. For aromatherapy, perhaps the most exciting product of the bee, and in terms of humour, a guarantee that the bees is the original aromatherapist, is propolis. The publicity surrounding this hive product flows goes from "nature's energiser" to "the miracle healer". The first thing we should understand about propolis is what it is used for in the hive and where it is collected from. The bees use it as a form of cement to caulk and line the beehive. Propolis is collected from the buds of certain trees, in particular poplar, birch, willow, horse chestnut. However it is not only collected from the buds but also right at the base or foot stalk of the opening young leaves. It is also collected from the bark of trees. All these materials would be familiar to us as aromatherapists as various resins. So obviously it's a natural aromatherapy product.! In the processing of beeswax, it's seen as a by product or perhaps even impurity so is generally removed. As hinted above, the choice I make in beeswax is to keep it in as nature intended, even if I have to pay a few pennies more. A mixture of wax and propolis is used like cement around the hive. It's used to fix the roof, to construct entrance holes and so on. Interestingly enough, it's also use to cover up anything that's objectionable, such as a dead invader, which may be too heavy to remove. The object is literally sealed up or entombed. It is important to realise that this sticky glue or gum is strictly resinous. Gums and resins are two different things. Gums are soluble in water, resins are not.
Propolis is collected by the bees and transported in the same way as pollen. The collection of propolis by honey bees is a large scale operation. In the end, the entire surface of the hive can be coated with propolis and it is literally polished. The name is derived from the Greek pro, meaning before and polis, meaning city. In relation to the hive then, propolis is like an antibacterial sealant used to construct the entrance way into the heart of the city, which means that all the bees entering it had to cross it, so being disinfected on the way in. The protective element of propolis is further seen in the laying of the eggs in the hive. Before the queen lays her eggs in the cell, the bees clean it out. The cell is then coated with a layer of propolis after which the egg is laid, the cell sealed over and a sterile environment has been created. Propolis is a natural antibiotic. Returning mythic world Zeus, or Jupiter, transformed the beautiful Melissa into a bee. Her role was to provide this natural healer. Egyptian medicine relied heavily on propolis and Hippoctrates was generous in his praise, prescribing it for the healing of sores and ulcers. Culpeper, too, in his Complete Herbal says ''the ointment called propolis is singularly good for all heat (fever) and inflammation in many parts of the body and cools the heat of the wounds". The content of propolis is quite interesting. Of course it has to vary according to the environment of the bees, both geographical and ecological but generally we can attribute its bioactivity to the concentration ofbioflavanoids. Roughly speaking, it's made up of 50% resin, 30% wax and 5% pollen, but is does contain a high percentage of essential oils, roughly 10%. It contains a good selection of minerals, vitamins B complex, pro-vitamin A as well as vitamin A. Concentration of bioflavanoids indicates quite clearly that in external applications, propolis would have vasoconstrictive activity. Propolis has been used in antiacne creams, anti-wrinkle creams and where there have been diseases or problems with nails. It would seem that it goes without saying that every aromatherapist should have a propolis ointment in their standard kit! The substance comes in different forms. Tablets for supplementation, ready made ointments and unguents for first line cuts, wounds etc. I add a little Tea Tree and Ravensara to the version I use. Herbalists favour a tincture which is easily added to cream for external use or to water for ingestion, perhaps in cases of pneumo or pulmonary conditions. For cosmetic use, extracts are readily available and can be added to a variety of base materials. One of the things brought to my attention about propolis is that in certain situations, it's good at soothing allergies. The bioflavanoid content can help block the acids that break into cells, causing the release of allergy causing substances. Bioflavanoids are commonly referred to in reports from all over the world as having a variety of health benefits. Propolis is obviously a prime natural source and in my opinion is much under utilised. It seems strange to me that such a natural aromatherapy product has never been more widely promoted. I suppose this is because of the narrow view that the therapy is based upon essential oils. I suspect that this is a producing industry view point rather than a hands on therapist view point. After all the bee collecting its resins is not in the distiller's budget. Propolis lines are relatively cheap and often of less interest to suppliers. Propolis is one of my big enthusiasms. My mother has been taking it for many years as an immune booster and in the best tradition of old wife's tales, which is where we began this article, she swears by it. All I can saw is the bee got to know the value of resins and essential oils a long time before we got around to calling their activity aromatherapy. Looking to nature is the best long term solution for this planet, working in harmony with it and co-operating with it rather than trying to manipulate it. The bee has been in aromatherapy a lot longer than we have and our ancestors were wise enough to highlight the value in their myths and legends. The best we can do today is to analyse it, replicate it and often miss the point in the process. However the replicate is probably cheap, looks good on a supermarket shelf and is scientifically safer. OK, so we are supposed to live longer these days but we do seem to be dying of more weird disease, strange allergies and the environment is certainly on the blink. But all that is another story and another labyrinth we can enter another day! For today, let's just enjoy the products of the hive, especially remembering the value the bees, with their innate sense, placed upon the precious resins that are found at the very point of life explosion in the bud of the trees, their love of the nectar of the flower and the production of the sweet honey. All done under the sun and for us with a wonderful murmur of the humming bees on a summer day. © Jan Kusmirek 7th February 2000