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Sweet Medicine

Honeybees are believed to have appeared on Earth about 130 million years ago. They are largely responsible for the luscious diversity of flowering plants that we have today. The honeybee is also the only insect that makes food that humans consume. Cave paintings and traces of beeswax found in the Stone Age pottery indicate that honey collecting and beekeeping date back to prehistory. Throughout history, honey has been used not only as food but as medicine as well. Different ancient cultures used honey for various maladies: respiratory, gastrointestinal, eye, oral. Today, solid scientific evidence supports antimicrobial and cough suppressing properties of honey.


Antimicrobial Properties 


Honey has a very rare quality: it does not spoil over remarkably long periods of time. Approximately 3000-year-old honey found in an Egyptian tomb was reportedly perfectly edible!  Such extraordinarily long shelf life of honey comes from its composition. A high concentration of sugar, slight acidity and the presence of hydrogen peroxide, a potent antiseptic agent, make honey a largely uninhabitable environment for bacteria.  Laboratory studies have found honey to be effective against a variety of bacteria, including antibiotic-resistant strains such as methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and vancomycin-resistant Enterococci (VRE). Honey’s ability to kill antibiotic-resistant bacteria is of particular interest because of the recent emergence of “superbugs” – difficult-to-treat bacteria resistant to most common antibiotic drugs.

One of the earliest uses of antimicrobial properties of honey was found in wound treatment. There are now numerous scientific studies that support the efficacy of honey in wound healing, particularly superficial cuts, and burns. In addition to preventing wound infection due to its antimicrobial properties, anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant characteristics of honey support the overall healing process. In comparison with conventional agents, honey dressings result in considerably faster wound healing. Although good results can be achieved by just applying a honey-soaked gauze to a cleaned wound, standardized medical-grade honey products are often preferred due to the ease of use and their sterility. 

Cough Suppressing Properties

The top reason for doctor visits, cough is in fact intended to help us remove irritants – foreign particles, bacteria, viruses, mucus - from the respiratory tract. While acute cough often does not require any treatment, frequent and forceful coughing can be discomforting and exhausting and interfere with your sleep and regular activities. Most likely due to its antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties, honey was found to be a more effective remedy for cough relief than some of the most commonly used over-the-counter (OTC) medicines. Honey’s effectiveness, relatively low cost, and fewer side effects make it an attractive alternative to OTC drugs. Due to the risk of botulism, honey should not be given to children younger than one year of age.

Honey Varieties


It is estimated that there are about 300 unique varieties of honey today. Understandably, color, flavor, fragrance, and composition of honey depend on the floral nectar that the bees collected.  In general, light-colored honeys such as acacia, clover, and sage are milder in flavor while darker honeys, such as buckwheat and dandelion tend to have a bolder, full-bodied savor. Darker honey varieties were also found to pack considerably more antioxidants than the lighter ones.

A special kind of dark honey, forest or honeydew honey, does not come from nectar but from honeydew – excretions of sap-sucking insects called aphids. Tree/plant sap consisting of sugars, water and a small amount of proteins is a source of nutrition for aphids that digest it and excrete the leftovers as a sugary syrup - honeydew. Many animals (birds, lizards) and insects, including bees feed on honeydew. In fact, some ants hold honeydew in such high regard that they tend their own herd of aphids, protecting them from predators and “milking” them for their sugary delight! Honeydew honey, prized for its uniqueness and exceptional health benefits, is well known in Europe and New Zealand but less popular elsewhere in the world.


Only a fraction of world honey has been tested for medicinal properties. Some of the well-regarded and most expensive ones include Yemeni Sidr, New Zealand’s Manuka and Malaysia’s Tualang honey. To provide a practical tool for honey consumers, a new study proposed a “health benefits index” that would allow the ranking of honeys based on their medicinal properties.​

Jars with honey and bouquet of wild flow

Adulterated and medical-grade honey


The rapid decline in the bee population caused partly by pollution and excessive use of pesticides led to lower production and an increase in the price of honey. As a result, markets around the world are flooded with honey that is artificially dried (removed from the hives before it is ripe) or adulterated by adding sugar, corn syrup, and other substances. Understandably, adulterated honey will not have the same health benefits as the authentic bee product. Although one can find various tips online for spotting pure honey, the truth is that even precise scientific techniques struggle as adulterations get more sophisticated. Considering this uncertainty, it seems that the best bet for acquiring a good quality product would be to go to a trusted source, be it a store or a local honey producer.


Medicinal grade honey is honey that was processed by various methods to ensure a standard quality and sterility, properties important in medical applications. Various medical-grade products are available on the market, including gel, paste, and dressings.

Last updated: October 25, 2019

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