Honey bees (Apis mellifera) have been around for about 130 million years, and although the human species isn’t nearly as ancient, we have been taking advantage of the bees’ hard work for at least as long as our own recorded history. For thousands of years and across hundreds of cultures, honey has been used as both food and medicine.
Honey bees make honey as a source of sustenance to keep the colony alive through the winter. When a honey bee collects nectar from a flower, it stores it in a special stomach (they have two), where it is treated with enzymes that start to break the nectar down into simple sugars (glucose and fructose). When the bee returns to the hive, it passes off its load of nectar to the worker bees there, who take it into their mouths and add more enzymes and other compounds before storing it in a honeycomb cell. Once in the cell, the bees fan their wings over it until it dehydrates and thickens into the substance we know as honey. The finished honey is more than just sugar; it contains more than 180 different substances, including antioxidants, enzymes, amino acids, vitamins, minerals, and antibacterial compounds like methylglyoxal.
But that’s not all…
Honey has such strong antimicrobial properties that it has been shown to be effective against even antibiotic resistant super germs, and biofilms, which are otherwise hard to treat. A biofilm is a ‘layer’ of bacteria that have come together and pooled their defensive resources, often making them nearly impervious to antibiotics.
The bees depend on the long-term storage of their honey for survival, so contamination of their food source with bacteria or fungus would be devastating. To keep this from happening, the bees add a protein from their own immune systems, called defensin-1, which works in synergy with other antimicrobial properties of honey.
Honey makes an ideal antimicrobial wound dressing, because under certain conditions, it slowly releases small amounts of hydrogen peroxide. Honey contains glucose and an enzyme called glucose oxidase that can break down the glucose into hydrogen peroxide. Honey itself does not form hydrogen peroxide, because the enzyme needs a pH between 5.5 and 8.0 (honey is around 3 or 4), and a certain amount of sodium to become active. But when honey comes in contact with a human wound, the conditions are just right. In a study of wound patients who had wounds that failed to heal with conventional treatment, application of raw, unfiltered honey resulted in improvement in all but one case, and the infected wounds became completely sterile within one week of application. Honey also has strong anti-inflammatory properties, which aids healing and reduces scarring.
Is all honey the same?
The antimicrobial potency of honey can vary widely, not only due to the nectar sources it was made from, but the way it was processed.
Most of the honey you buy in the grocery store has been filtered, to remove debris, but also to remove small particles like pollen or wax that can speed crystallization. Once the pollen has been removed, it is impossible to tell where the honey has come from. Sometimes honey is smuggled illegally into the U.S. market (often from China), and may be from unapproved sources that could contain heavy metals, antibiotics or other chemicals. There is also the very real possibility of filtered honey being watered down with fructose and other sweeteners by unscrupulous producers.
For maximum benefits, look for raw, unfiltered honey from a reputable source. Heated or filtered honey may be missing many of the enzymes and other beneficial substances.
Feed your flora…
Honey is not only good for you, but it’s also good for your gut bacteria. Besides fructose and glucose, it also contains about 5% fructooligosaccharides, which are nondigestible carbohydrates. They pass through our stomach and small intestine and into the large intestine, where they become food for the good bacteria such as bifido and lactobacilli. In one study of mice, those fed a diet supplemented with honey had a marked increase in their good gut bacteria.
Why no honey for babies?
The bacteria Clostridium botulinum is found throughout our environment, but it can only grow and multiply where there is no air. When the bacteria are exposed to air, they form spores that wait around for the right conditions. When we ingest these spores, our immune system and our gut bacteria easily eliminate them. But the immune systems of children less than a year old are not mature enough to do this, and the spores can begin to grow and multiply in the absence of air in the gut. Botulinum spores can get into honey when bees encounter them in the environment.
But for the rest of us…
A little honey in our diets and on our cuts and scrapes might go a long way…
El-Arab, A.M.E., et.al. 2006. Effect of dietary honey on intestinal microflora and toxicity of mycotoxins in mice. BMC Complement Altern Med. 6(6):
Efam, S.E.E. 1988. Clinical observations on the wound healing properties of honey. British Journal of Surgery 75(7): 679-681
Kwakman, P.H.S. et.al. 2010. How honey kills bacteria. The FASEB Journal 24(7): 2576-2582
Vallianou, N.G. et.al. 2014. Honey and its anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial, and anti-oxidant properties. General Med. 2(2)