Published on 17th December 2015


Tasty on toast and even better on baklava, honey is a common foodstuff that’s possibly taken for granted. But, as Maggie Charlesworth writes, it is so much more than just sugar

We probably pass the supermarket honey section without too much thought, but in some parts of the world people will risk life and limb just for a taste. In the Himalayan foothills in Nepal, the Gurung tribe use smoke and ladders to steal honey from the world’s largest honeybees, and in Africa, Bakaya tribesmen will climb 40 metres into the treetops with nothing but rope for security just to gather this delicious delicacy.

During its lifetime a bee will only make about 1.5 teaspoons of honey1 — enough for one slice of toast. But our love for this sweet, golden food has been recorded over thousands of years, on ancient cave paintings and Egyptian hieroglyphs, and more recently in the stories of Winnie the Pooh, who got stuck in a rabbit hole after gorging on a whole pot! More seriously, as well as being a source of instant energy (it is high in simple sugar), it is also regarded as a traditional medicine. It has been used to treat gastrointestinal, cardiovascular and inflammatory disorders, and during World War I was used by the Russians to prevent wound infection and accelerate wound healing.2

Today, even without knowing how honey works — or indeed — if it works, many of us swear by it. How many of us might be sitting reading this article in January, nursing a winter cold with a glass of hot water, lemon and honey! 

However, research finds that honey may be no better than conventional cough mixture. One review into whether it could reduce cough symptoms in children concluded that it relieved symptoms to enable children to sleep “moderately better” than “no treatment”. In comparison to cough mixture ingredients, it may have been better than “diphenhydramine for relieving and reducing the effect of cough on children”, but was no better than dextromethorphan.3

Honey has been dolloped under many microscopes so that its properties can be better understood. Its antibacterial activity was first recognised in 1892, and since then researchers have found it to have an inhibitory effect on around 60 species of bacteria.2 In a world looking for tougher armoury in the battle against superbugs such as MRSA, that is very interesting indeed. But interesting indications are not enough and trials are ongoing; because not all honeys are created equal and research is often variable. 

A 2015 review published by the Cochrane Collaboration (current until October 2014) into honey used in wound dressings looked at 26 studies involving 3,011 people with various wounds. The authors concluded that because of the difference in type of wound, it was impossible to draw overall conclusions. Many of the studies were also said to be of low quality due to their design. Where honey did show positive results was in “high quality evidence” that it healed partial thickness burns around four to five days faster than conventional dressings. “Moderate quality evidence” showed that honey was more effective than antiseptic followed by gauze for healing wounds infected after surgical operations. However, it was not clear whether honey was better or worse than other treatments for burns, mixed acute and chronic wounds, pressure ulcers, Fournier’s gangrene, venous leg ulcers, minor acute wounds, diabetic foot ulcers and Leishmaniasis because most of the evidence was of low quality.4 
But there may be economic benefits to honey dressings. A recent small study on 12 patients with foot ulcers found that honey resulted in healing “with no contractures or scars” and a 75 per cent “reduction in the dressing budget”.5 

But one of the problems with honey being touted as a natural antiseptic is the prospect that people will try using what they have at home; and although risk factors can be anticipated for over-the-counter medication, this is not the case for domestic foodstuffs used without medical advice. Illustrating this concern, the NHS warns against applying honey from your food cupboard to wounds: “Not only due to the uncertain evidence we have, but also to avoid the risk of getting toast crumbs in your wound.”6

It is Manuka honey — shown to be effective in the treatment of ulcers, infected wounds and burns — that has caused much of the buzz around honey.7 From New Zealand, it’s produced by bees that collect nectar from the manuka bush — also known as teatree, but not to be confused with the Australian teatree. And at Cardiff University, researchers are hoping to produce a Welsh honey that can match Manuka for its antibacterial properties.

Working with the National Botanic Garden of Wales, the Cardiff University team says it has identified a honey from North Wales which has medicinal properties comparable to Manuka honey. It has also identified the plants from which the bees had collected the nectar. The team plans to use disused urban spaces to create habitats for bees, and it hopes that the research will lead to plant-derived drugs that can be used to treat antibiotic-resistant hospital pathogens. 

And this is the hope for honey — that it will beat the superbugs. However, although studies have shown that repeated doses of honey do not appear to cause resistance, a recent in vitro study found that treatment with Manuka honey of biofilms (bacteria growing in slime-enclosed collections, which are difficult to treat with antibiotics) of Pseudomonas aeruginosa (bacterium that can affect plants and animals including humans) resulted in the emergence of isolates with increased honey resistance.8 So honey may still not be the answer.

Some scientists have turned to looking at what the bee contributes. A Swedish study found that in the laboratory, 13 lactic acid bacteria found in bees’ stomachs could fight off MRSA — although these bacteria are found to be present only in fresh honey.9

But as a natural product, honey will always have its fans. Many hay fever sufferers believe that eating a little local honey every day will relieve their symptoms. The theory behind the practice is that traces of large grain pollen, which isn’t a problem for hay fever sufferers, are present in the honey and so help to build resistance to the smaller pollen grains that cause the reaction. So far, however, although there is plenty of anecdotal support for the idea, there is no supporting evidence that it works. One study comparing raw, unfiltered honey, pasteurised honey and a placebo found that none relieved symptoms of rhinoconjunctivitis.10 

The bloggersphere suggests that people need to start taking honey at least two months before the pollen season, but even then it is not guaranteed that the pollen in your jar of local honey is your problem pollen — it may be local, but not the particular pollen that disagrees with you!

“It’s Manuka honey — shown to be effective in the treatment of ulcers, infected wounds and burns — that has caused much of the buzz around honey”

However, regardless of the science, if we want honey on our toast, we need to look after our bees, which are in decline. Already in parts of China, some fruit pollination is carried out by hand, with teams of workers going from tree to tree with packets of pollen and brushes. But the work has to be timely — there is a window of just five days — and wages are expensive, making some fruits uneconomical to grow.11

Various reasons are cited for the decline in the world’s bee population, including monoculture farming (growing of single crops) and clearing land for grazing, resulting in a decline in the wildflowers that are essential to bees. And recently, French researchers announced that they had found that bees which foraged around crops treated with neonicotinoid pesticides died off at a faster rate than normal12 Neonicotinoids have been under a temporary ban in Europe for the last two years, and are due to be reviewed.

While the legislators argue it out we, in the meantime, can help our bees by supporting organic produce, encouraging wildflower growth — or even becoming a beekeeper! 

To find out if there is something that you would like to do, visit the British Beekeepers’ Association at



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  4. Jull AB et al (2015). Honey as a topical treatment for wounds.
  5. Mohamed H et al (2015). The efficacy and safety of natural honey on the healing of foot ulcers: A case series. Wounds. 27(4):103-114.
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