The nectar of the gods

Honey, that simple raw product we tend to think of putting on our toast or porridge in the morning, has seen a renewed interest in its other uses over recent years. With this year’s harvest due and the Honey Show returning to Winterbourne on 10 and 11 September, we thought we would have a look at its uses over time, starting way back over 4,000 years ago.

Honey is made by the humble bee, who collects nectar from flowers; mixes it with its stomach enzymes; and then stores it in the hive, fanning it with its wings until it loses most of its moisture and becomes the wonderfully sticky substabnce we are familiar with. It is said that honey never goes off, proof of which has been found in tombs dating to the third millennium BC, containing still edible honey in sealed containers.

It is one of the easiest foods to digest, which is handy, as it is known for its beneficial effect in healing stomach ulcers. Fresh, minimally processed, and unheated honey contains many important bioactive plant compounds and antioxidants, such as flavonoids and phenolic acids. In general, darker varieties offer more antioxidants than lighter ones. 

Used as a sweetener in cooking, especially in the past when sugar was scarce or expensive, you can add it to tea and coffee, cakes, and of course fruit and yoghurt. However, honey should not be given to children under 1 year of age due to the risk of it containing traces of the bacteria that causes botulism.

As well as an important culinary ingredient, honey is famed for its medicinal properties. We first find it referred to in written form in a Sumerian tablet writing, dating from 2100-2000 BC. The tablet mentions honey being used as a drug and an ointment.

It also appears in many texts from ancient Greece. Hippocrates, often known as the ‘Father of Medicine’ wrote ‘Honey and pollen cause warmth, clean sores and ulcers, soften had ulcers of lips, heal carbuncles and running sores’. Aristotle mentions it as being ‘good as a salve for sore eyes and wounds’.

Honey has been a staple go to in the treatment of sore throats for thousands of years it seems. In warmer climates it was accompanied by slices of lemon, making a honey pot that should be sipped slowly to relieve discomfort and ease discomfort. Here in the UK, lemons were only for the wealthy until the last century due to the cost of importing them. An alternative, for those who lacked coin, was honey and garlic – not so tasty but just as effective!

Honey is also known for the treatment of hay fever. A teaspoon a day of local honey is said to desensitise you to the effect of local pollens.

Research has shown that natural unheated honey has some broad-spectrum antibacterial activity, with Manuka, Leptospermum scoparium and Tualang, Koompassia excelsa, showing an inhibitory effect on around 60 species of bacteria including E-coli and Salmonella. It is not surprising therefore that there are many reports of honey being very effective in treating infected wounds, burns, skin ulcers and inflammations – promoting healing where, in some cases, modern antibiotics have failed. In dressing a wound, honey also keeps it moist and creates a barrier, thus helping to prevent infection.

There are many modern medical research papers that go into great technical detail on the properties of honey and its invaluable contribution to natural medicine. Our ancestors may not have known the scientific reasons for its powers, but they certainly knew of its uses and benefitted from them.

On that note we will leave you with another ancient quote, this time from the Bible, Proverbs 16:24: ‘Kind words are like honey, sweet to the soul and healthy for the body.’

To find out more about the wonders of honey, don’t miss the Birmingham Honey Show – a weekend packed with fun for all the family. Entry is free to all.

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