Before goji berries, chia seeds and spirulina, there was honey. The second sweetest thing found in nature, honey is the original superfood. Not only is it extremely tasty, honey has been used in medicine since ancient Egyptian times. What is it about honey that makes it so special?
The magic of bee vomit
The earliest written reference to honey hails from about 2000 BC: a Sumerian clay tablet refers to its use as a drug and an ointment. Aristotle knew plenty about honey bees and the fact honey could be used to treat wounds. Bronze age burial mounds show evidence of honey being used to preserve burial objects: archaeologists have found still-red 4,300 year old berries. Alexander the Great is said to have been laid to rest in a sarcophagus full of honey and other ancient cultures may have used honey to mummify their dead.
These days we know a lot about honey: it has been rediscovered by modern medicine as a powerful antibacterial. This simply means honey can prevent the growth of bacteria. Given the increasing problem of antibiotic resistance, anything that can stop bacteria in its tracks is a good thing. It also means honey has the potential to be an excellent natural food preservative.
A few factors make honey so powerful: its syrupy consistency keeps air out of wounds, which reduces the risk of infection. Honey is packed full of sugar and is also acidic, both of which make it hard for bacteria to grow. But artificial honey with the same thickness and sugar concentration doesn’t kill bacteria nearly as effectively as honey.
Manuka honey, also known as healing honey, is an effective dressing for wounds, and kills a number of pesky bacteria. It is made from the nectar of a plant in the tea tree family that grows in New Zealand and Australia.
While Manuka honey is considered to be medical grade honey (and comes with a higher price tag), other honey has been found to also fight bacteria and other tiny organisms that can make us sick. Among other things, honey helps burns to heal, can treat a variety of skin conditions, may reduce allergy symptoms and works better than cough mixture to calm a tickly throat. Unprocessed honey also contains many different antioxidants, which can reduce your risk of heart disease.
Diluted honey works just as well as expensive sport gels for endurance athletes. And one study found taking honey supplements improves memory. There is even some evidence honey interferes with the growth of cancerous cells.
Not bad for something that is essentially bee vomit.
A recipe for honey
Bees do some pretty nifty processing to make honey. Worker honeybees leave their hive to search for pollen and nectar. It’s the nectar that becomes honey and bees do intricate and highly informative ‘waggle’ dances to communicate to their hive mates where good nectar can be found. One estimate is it takes more than 500 worker bees visiting 2 million flowers to make half a kilo of honey. The average worker bee will make one-twelfth of a teaspoon of honey in her lifetime.
Bees drink nectar from flowers and store it in a special extra stomach. When a forager bee returns to the hive, she regurgitates the nectar to honey-making bees. These bees pass the nectar from mouth-to-mouth to partially digest it – breaking down the complex sugars into glucose and fructose as well as reducing the water content.
The bees deposit the newly-made honey into the hexagonal wax honeycomb and flap their wings over the honeycomb to dry out the honey even more. When the consistency is right, the bees cap each hexagon with wax for storage.
Why do bees make and store honey? Honey is food for the larvae – baby bees – as well as for the adults during times of year when flowers are thin on the ground.
No use by date
Fancy a spoonful of three thousand-year-old honey? There’s no reason you couldn’t: archaeologists have found pots of perfectly-preserved honey in ancient Egyptian tombs.
How can honey have no use by date? There are a few factors at play, many of them the same reasons why honey is more than just a folk remedy. The key: honey simply doesn’t provide a nice place for bacteria or other tiny nasties to live. It’s too thick, too low in moisture and too acidic.
But molasses, although also thick, low in water and acidic, will eventually spoil. What makes honey so special is what the bees add to it. Bees have a particular enzyme in their stomachs, which gets added to the nectar when they regurgitate it. When mixed with the water in nectar, this enzyme breaks down into hydrogen peroxide, a kind of bleach. The hydrogen peroxide partly explains honey’s anti-bacterial effect, as well as its long life. As long as you leave it sealed, just like bees do, your honey should last forever.
I seem to recall Winnie-the-Pooh never had lids on his pots of honey. But I guess he ate it so fast there was no risk of his honey going off anyway.
Links and stuff
- Podcast: The buzz on honey
- The science behind honey’s eternal shelf life
- Manuka honey makes bacteria less resistant to antibiotics
- TED-Ed talk: The honeybee and the hexagon