Honey Health

A neighbor asked for local honey to treat her allergy so I gave her some from our hives. She wanted a natural alternative to anti-histamines.

South-east Virginia has a miserable reputation for hay fever sufferers, and pollen is suspect as soon as our cars are dusted apple-green from pine trees in early spring. Pollen levels remain high and in the 8 to 9 range throughout the summer because of a succession of grasses flowering after the pine. But some people are symptomatic the year round or mainly in the fall. Pollen sometimes gets the blame for culprits like dust mites, molds and animal scurf. Maybe our neighbor is wasting her time by self-medicating on honey.

But at least the theory of educating her immune system with antigens is sound, and obviously analogous to vaccination. Someone in our family has an allergy to birch pollen and is getting relief from graded doses of the same pollen by subcutaneous shots. Would it work if he took it orally, like her trial with honey? Perhaps!

Honey

Time for Medicine

The oral mucosa has a sophisticated immune system with Langerhans cells and patrolling dendritic cells involved in tolerance. A defense system is needed in the mouth because food and drink are not necessarily sterile until they are mixed with stomach acid. If honey lingers under the tongue before it is swallowed there may be time for its cargo of antigens to be presented to these cells. Whether pollen creates an immune response during passage through the gut is more dubious, because it encounters there a fury of enzymes, although pollen grains have been found in the evacuated products at the rear end. Ahem.

Since I was both ill-equipped and disinclined to test that theory, I decided to ask a more practicable question. Is there any pollen in our honey? I dusted off a microscope to focus on a glass slide where I smeared a sample.

Aha! I saw several types of grain. They were clear or dark spheres ranging in size from about 0.01 to 0.1 mm, but I had no idea what trees or herbs they came from. And I wondered if they were sufficiently abundant to alert the immune system, but that wasn’t the most serious doubt.

When a hay fever sufferer is tested for hypersensitivity, trees and grasses are top of the pollen list. Note: they are wind-pollinated species. I can’t discount them in our honey, but if any of their pollen is present it is an “accidental” minority because bees don’t visit those species. Insect-pollinated flowers rarely cause hay fever, but it is their pollen grains that rub off bees when depositing nectar in the comb to make honey. I haven’t expressed these doubts to my neighbor since there’s a chance that she will feel better from the placebo effect!

Honey has an ancient and honorable history in medicine: it was used to dress wounds and made foul tonics and potions palatable. Moreover, it doesn’t need refrigeration because it has natural antiseptic properties. The concentration of sugars is so high that bugs are dehydrated by osmosis, and without water there can be no life.  Archaeologists have even found edible honey in Egyptian tombs thousands of years old. One of the oldest elixirs, it is still useful.

I tested honey as an antiseptic barrier on a skin wound. Easy to apply and always in the pantry, I was excited when it seemed to be working – until my dog licked it off. She knows its other virtues.

Next Post: Notes from the hive

About Roger Gosden

I took early retirement from my post as Professor & Research Director in Reproductive Biology at Cornell Medical College in New York City to concentrate on writing about science and nature,
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