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Honey has traditionally been regarded as a medicine or tonic, rather than an everyday food. Today honey is once again increasingly recognized for its healing and anti-bacterial properties when taken orally, or applied as a treatment for wounds and burns. For example, many societies know honey and lemon as an elixir to relieve sore throats. Today there is scientific explanation: the vitamin C of the lemon has immune stimulating and anti-infective effects, while the honey has medicinal power. The most common bacterium known to cause sore throats is Streptococcus pyogenes, and laboratory experiments have proved that some honeys can inhibit the growth of this bacterium. Another bacterium that honey has been shown to inhibit is Helicobacter pylorum – a causative factor in ulcers. Honey has a number of constituents and properties that can result in healing properties. These include its acidity, enzymic activity, hydrogen peroxide and high osmotic potential. One of the enzymes present in honey is glucose oxidase. This enzyme is produced by the bees’ hypopharyngeal (head) glands. When honey is diluted, the enzyme is activated and oxidises glucose to generate gluconic acid and hydrogen peroxide. The high osmotic potential of honey is due to its high sugar concentration: this means that it has an osmotic effect, which can lead to the breakdown of bacterial membranes, thus inhibiting microbial growth. Honey can be also put to use in healing skin and drying out wounds: its anti-bacterial properties and physical composition, maintaining moist conditions and allowing oxygen to pass, is good for preventing infections, reducing inflammation and promoting rapid healing. Honey also contains compounds derived from the flowers on which bees were foraging: these may be flavonoids and active phenols, well known for their antibacterial properties. Many studies established that the dark honeys of the coniferous forests have a strong antibacterial activity. Examples of antibacterial honeys are the Australian honey of Leptospermum polygalifolium and the well-known manuka honey Leptospermum scoparium of New Zealand. More information about honey’s healing properties can be found in various books.


In 2003, two consignments of honey being brought in to the EU from Zambia were found to contain low levels of the antibiotic streptomycin. According to the Codex Alimentarius definition, honey must not contain any antibiotics. Within the EU, antibiotics such as streptomycin, tetracyclines, penicillin and sulphonamides are illegal for use in beekeeping. Tetracyclines can be used to treat the honeybee disease European Foulbrood, but only under veterinary control and supervision, and procedures must be followed so that any honey produced during the treatment period cannot enter the honey market. The imported honey was harvested by beekeepers living and working in the forests that cover Zambia’s remote North West Province. It is very unlikely that these beekeepers are using antibiotics in their beekeeping. The honey is harvested from local style hives made from cylinders of bark and placed high in trees of the miombo woodland. No honeybee diseases are known, and beekeepers do not have the resources, possibility or necessity to use antibiotics in their beekeeping. So how could streptomycin have become present in the honey? Is it possible that it is a natural constituent of honey, carried into the hive by foraging bees? Streptomycin is produced by bacteria belonging to the genus Streptomyces: these bacteria are common and widespread. Streptomycetes have been discovered in samples collected from the miombo woodland, in places frequented by bees, such as hollows in trees, water holes and leaf mould. Early indications are therefore that the streptomycin could indeed be occurring naturally. This has implications for honey legislation and the world honey trade, as well as for understanding of honeybee biology and honey’s long-known role in health and healing. It is also known from research that ants and Streptomycetes have a highly evolved relationship: some leaf cutter ants have white spots on their bodies – these spots are colonies of a Streptomyces species, producing an antibiotic to protect the ant colony’s food sources from other pathogens. Could bees also have evolved a way to harness the benefits of the antibiotic streptomycin? Clearly, research was needed to investigate this amazing discovery, and to provide scientific data concerning the streptomycin and its possible origin. Bees for Development is now researching this, in cooperation with the University of Warwick, towards proving the genetic origin of the streptomycin in the Zambian honey.


Beekeepers have long been aware of local customers who like to purchase local, unfiltered honey in the belief that regular consumption of honey containing pollen helps to reduce their allergic reactions (‘hay fever’) to these pollens. Recent research on allergic diseases appears to support this belief. BEESWAX In the past beeswax was used in medicine, mainly as a carrier for other ingredients, and in salves and poultices. Today beeswax is used extensively in the pharmaceutical and cosmetics industries in ointments, skin creams and pills. Within the field of alternative medicine, beeswax is once again forming part of various medicines. There are some claims that it has antibiotic properties, and can be used in the treatment of arthritis and nasal inflammations.

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