Sunday, March 22, 2009

Not All Royal Jellies are the Same

Human Bee-ings
By Suzanne Wangmann, Sunday Telegraph Magazine (Australia), 3/22/2009

Greek beauty brand Apivita has exposed the secret life of bees and bottled the wondrous benefits of honey. Now we can all feel like the queen bee

Telling the story of his bees in broken English is 62-year-old Nikos Koutsianas. I wish you could see him grinning away as he stumbles over the foreign words, a wide smile stretching across his friendly face. It's as if he knows something the rest of us don't about how to live in this world with respect for nature, free of industrial guilt. And so he should, because Koutsianas started his working life with the dream of helping people with creams and medicines based on the nature around him. He's watched his 'hobby' spread to the far corners of the Earth - without desecrating it. "We believe we did well," he says warmly.

Koutsianas' company Apivita (from the Latin 'apis' meaning bees, and 'vita' meaning life) has been a phenomenal success. Even in these troubled times, the 30-year-old brand continues to thrive because, just like his bees, it has been well-cared for…

"I didn't like giving drugs to people," he says. "They'd come in with a little cough and we'd give them cough syrup and I thought, why? In our village, we would have used herbs. My mother was still there, so I asked her to collect some herbs and we began to make extracts and tinctures. Little by little we developed phytotherapy.

"We had the usual medicines on the back wall but, in the rest of the pharmacy, we had herbs, honey, royal jelly, and tisanes to treat coughs, constipation, psoriasis. We were the first pharmacy in Greece to do that."

Koutsianas continued learning, completing a post-graduate economics degree and studying law. Then along came Niki, now his wife of 36 years. She, too, was studying to be a pharmacist and asked if she could do her mandatory three months of work experience at the family's store.

By that stage, in addition to formulating and dispensing pharmaceuticals, Koutsianas was making creams. He learnt how to emulsify oil and water at university and had a good lab set-up for formulating drugs. People would ask him to make face and body creams and shampoos using his herbs and honey, and would sometimes bring in their own active ingredients. One client, he remembers, brought in a homemade concoction of her own blood and bone, which she wanted him to blend into a cream. "They came with unbelievable things, but Niki said, 'Stop all this - we must make the pharmacy a business.' She's clever and business-minded."

That was officially the start of Apivita. "We began with soaps, then shampoos, and later we had creams, but we didn't sell a lot. It was a time when few people asked for new herbs or products. They wanted the 'plastic' products from multinational corporations. When we produced a black soap with propolis [a plant resin used by bees to line and disinfect the hive's breeding cells], or I recommended a cream with royal jelly, which you had to keep in the fridge, they said, 'What's this?' These things were difficult to sell."

But the brand began to blossom following an introduction to one of Greece's best-known cartoonists, Spiros Ornerakis, who developed the logo and packaging, combined with Niki's work in marketing and distributing the products through other pharmacies. Since then, Apivita has grown into a multi-million dollar international business and is the best-selling skincare brand in Greek pharmacies. It has collected numerous awards worldwide for its use of natural ingredients, its work in maintaining sustainable work practices and its innovative product packaging…

The majority of the honey used in making Apivita cosmetics comes from the Peloponnese area in southern mainland Greece. The honey and propolis work well in cosmetics due to their waxes, proteins, enzymes, anti-microbial properties, trace elements and polysaccharides (natural sugars), but it's the royal jelly that Koutsianas thinks is the most amazing bee product.

"If you see the hives, you'll see why," he says. "Until the third day, new bees eat only royal jelly. After that, the normal bees eat honey and pollen, but the bees that are going to be queens - the difference is clear; they're the large ones and can reproduce a lot - continue to eat the royal jelly. When I've worked hard in the pharmacy all day and night, and the next day I must continue, I'll take royal jelly; for me, the results are fantastic."

But not all royal jellies are the same. The sugars and other additives that are fed to some bees increase their royal jelly production, but can reduce its quality and can be harmful to humans.

"It's important to know who's making royal jelly," he explains. "It's easy to feed bees with sugar and antibiotics and produce a lot more royal jelly, but there's one antibiotic - chloramphenical - which is especially bad for humans. Because of this, we have special beekeepers in Greece. I've known them for years - they trust me and I trust them. We have a good collaboration with a fair price and were working like this before fair trade became fashionable. When you have good partners, you have good products."…

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