Since time immemorial, mankind has risked a good stinging to pilfer honey from bees. Fossilised remains of honeybees dating back 150 million years suggest that the existence of honey is older than humanity itself.
The history of manâs use of honey is rich and varied. Seven-thousand-year-old cave paintings discovered in Spain depict the art of apiculture in full swing, while nearly 4000 years ago, the ancient Egyptians used honey as a sweetening agent, a tonic to aid conception and as an important ingredient in embalming fluid. So greatly prized was the amber elixir that honey cakes were regularly offered as a tribute to the gods or to high-standing members of Egyptian society.
The ancient Greeks also proffered honey to their deities. They claimed that Zeus, King of the Gods, was fed on the nectar of queen bees throughout his childhood. Honey was thus referred to as ambrosia, which means âfood of the godsâ. The god Eros also dipped his arrows in it before firing them on unsuspecting lovers-to-be. The Greeks regarded honey as nutritionally and therapeutically important for humans and are considered to be the inventors of mead â an alcoholic elixir based on honey and spices. A tablespoon of honey dissolved in warm water subsequently got rid of the thumping headache they suffered from drinking it.
References to honey pepper human history wherever bees buzz and people roam. Before refined sugar swept the world, water-attracting honey was the key moistening and sweetening ingredient in cakes and confections. Raw, enzyme-rich honey has been used in marinades to tenderise meat and as a medium to preserve fruits for winter. But its applications extend far beyond food. Seventeenth century European settlers in North America used honey to make cement, furniture polish and varnish, and honeyâs health giving properties were promoted by no less than the ancient Greek âFather of Medicineâ, Hippocrates.
Honey consists of roughly 38 per cent fructose, 31 per cent glucose, one per cent sucrose, nine percent other sugars, 17 per cent water and an abundance of vitamins, minerals, amino acids, enzymes and antioxidants. In spite of the âbest beforeâ date on the jar, it has an indefinite shelf life.
It is antibacterial and can greatly benefit the digestive system. It destroys the bacteria that cause diarrhoea and hampers the growth of other nasties too, such as Salmonella, E. Coli, Shigella (causes dysentery) and Vibrio Cholerae (causes cholera). Since honey attracts water it soaks up the moisture around the infected area and literally dehydrates to death any bacteria it encounters.
Ulcers can also be helped with honey. Scientists have found that daily consumption of honey arrests the growth of ulcer-causing H. Pylori within three days. As an antiseptic, honey is highly effective at treating minor burns and wounds because it prevents infection and speeds healing. It can help soothe a sore throat and, being rich in iron, is also good for people who are anaemic.
There is one form of honey, however, that surpasses all others in the healing stakes: Manuka, from New Zealand. Made by bees that have foraged on the Tea Tree (Manuka) bush, its âactiveâ forms, which contain a special property known as UMF (Unique Manuka Factor) contain antibacterial, antiviral and anti-fungal qualities above and beyond the scope of ânormalâ honey. It is helpful in the treatment of skin conditions such as eczema, psoriasis and acne and as a remedy for chapped lips. It is an excellent elixir for combating bacterial and fungal infections, coughs and sore throats (two cynical aunts of mine got rid of months-long coughs after taking Manuka Active 5 (the weakest strength) off the spoon for a week or two. Donât put it in hot water, as the heat destroys the honeyâs active enzymes). It is also being used in hospitals because it draws the poison out of MRSA wounds when applied topically as a Manuka dressing (1).
Raw, unadulterated honey can also help hayfever and asthma sufferers and alleviate up to 90 per cent of allergies. It is best to use honey from your own area, though, to habituate your immune system to local pollen. Hay fever sufferers should start taking one teaspoon three times a day for several weeks before symptoms normally start (2).
While honey is beneficial for most members of the human race, it is not good for babies under the age of 12 months. It should never be fed to them. Honey can contain spores of bacteria that trigger infant botulism, a rare but dangerous disease that attacks a babyâs nervous system. These spores do not affect adults or children over the age of one but proceed with caution when offering a toddler honey.
Other medicinal uses for honey include dissipating headaches and migraines (dissolve a tablespoon of honey in a glass of warm water and drink), cleaning out the system (honey is a natural laxative) and curing baldness. As the latter involves rubbing the b-spot with raw onions then applying apple honey, one could be forgiven for avoiding the victim until he ceases to smell like roast pork.
Given that bees perform the vital service of pollinating fruits, legumes, vegetables and other types of food-producing plants while going about their honey-making business they should be treated with the utmost respect (donât swat them!). Who else would fly a distance of more than three times around the world, make one-twelfth of a teaspoon of honey during his entire lifetime and forgive the confusion when you wear your new orange blossom scent?
On a final but sweet note, honey is wonderful for maintaining healthy skin and hair and is one of the oldest natural cosmetics known. Added to soap, shampoo and conditioner it leaves your face and hair soft and silky. Added to hand cream, it nourishes sore paws. Why not try the following recipes for beautiful skin:
Mayumiâs Japanese mask
Mash fine rolled oats with honey and a little water to make a paste. Apply to face. Leave on for 10 minutes or so, then rinse off with cool water. For all types who want beautiful skin.
Cleopatraâs ass milk bath
Command your slaves to milk 20 donkeys. Pour the milk into the bath. Swirl in a jar of fragrant raw honey and a handful of rose petals. Submerge and relax for silky skin.
(1) Comvita and Green Bay Manuka honeys are available from The Hopsack. They taste intriguingly different from each other (maybe itâs a North Island / South Island thing!). Manuka dressings can be ordered via The Hopsack. We also carry Comvitaâs Manukacare 18 sterilised honey âcreamâ, which can be applied to wounds with the aid of a qualified professional. Check out http://www.greenbayharvest.co.ukand http://www.comvita.com.
(2) Try Andrew McGuinnessâ delicious Meadowsweet honey from County Offaly or, when available, Rathgar honey on the comb. Both are seasonally available from The Hopsack.