Written by Ruth O’Neill:
Humans have been collecting honey for 9,000 years, perhaps longer, primarily for food or drink, but also for medicines, cosmetics, and as a preservative. Some of these historic uses of honey are described below.
Honey as a preservative
Honey is not only delicious, but it will keep practically indefinitely, adding to its value to humans. In one of the great pyramids in Egypt, archaeologists recently retrieved and tasted honey from ceramic jars stored 8,500 years ago in a tomb. They reported that the honey tasted fine, like ordinary, fresh honey. Honey is such a good preservative that food items like fruit, when immersed in honey, have been preserved for centuries.
The scientific explanation
Honey is a complex substance, and several factors contribute to its extensive shelf life: its acidity, its low water concentration, and the presence of hydrogen peroxide. To explain why there is hydrogen peroxide in honey, it’s important to understand two key ingredients that make honey: one of those is nectar, and the other is a secretion from the bees themselves.
Nectar, by the way, is a glandular secretion produced by plants. It’s collected by bees in their honey stomachs, and painstakingly dehydrated by the fanning of their wings. The nectar is mixed with glandular secretions from the bees. These bee secretions contain an enzyme that reacts with the glucose in the nectar. This reaction produces two important components that give honey its preservative properties:
1) hydrogen peroxide, which is an antibacterial agent
2) gluconic acid, which lowers the honey’s pH
Finished honey has the proper balance of these two products and will keep almost indefinitely. The key to maintaining honey’s long shelf life is to keep it well-sealed, because it is hygrophilic. What is hygrophilic? If honey is exposed to air it will gradually absorb water in the air, and it will ferment and spoil.
Honey as medicine
The preservative and antimicrobial qualities of honey apparently also made honey a useful medicine in the past, and honey has been used this way throughout Eurasia for a very long time. Some medical uses may have been questionable as curatives. For example: in ancient Greece, honey + vinegar was swallowed for pain; honey + water + herbs for fever. Similar mixtures were thought to treat baldness, provide contraception, aid in digestion, resolve eye complaints, and cure colds and sore throats. In Egypt there are hundreds of similar documented ancient remedies using honey. I have no medical training, but that mostly sounds like rubbish. I find some modern medical or dietary claims potentially more compelling. For example, honey is known to be a useful dietary antioxidant. Antioxidants are compounds found in some foods, usually plants, that can halt or slow down cellular damage by eliminating waste products in cells (free radicals).
Honey was also used by the ancients for wound care, and it seems in this case that they were onto something genuinely useful. Early medical healers cleaned wounds and then packed them with honey or sugar-honey mixtures, either as a slurry or as a compress. In modern times, honey has been found to obstruct about sixty species of bacteria, including several staph and strep species. The acidic, bacteria-inhibiting and bacteria-killing properties of honey as well as its super-saturated sugar concentration are harmful to many flesh-destroying bacteria. Some modern surgeons in both human and veterinary medicine are successfully reviving this ancient practice. This is not quackery but proper wound care management, and in an era of evolving antibiotic resistance, perhaps honey will offer another line of defense against dangerous microbes in wounds.
Honey as food and drink
Honey’s long shelf life makes it a convenient sweetener, and it has been widely used in the ancient world both as a stand-alone or as an ingredient in breads, cakes, and other foods.
Although adding water to honey is generally a very bad idea, diluted honey does make a first-rate diet for yeasts that can convert sugar to alcohol. Mead is an alcoholic drink that was made all over Asia and Europe for thousands of years, created from fermented honey-water and airborne yeasts, and it is the oldest known alcoholic beverage, reaching at least as far back as 9,000 years ago in northern China. There were many regional twists on the basic mead recipe, crafted by blending the mead with herbs or fruit bases, or including malt and/or hops in the process to produce mead beer. Oenomel is an ancient Greek drink made from fermented honey and grape juice.
And remember: I’m an entomologist – not a doctor. Consult yours if any of this medicinal history is intriguing to you.
Written by Ruth O’Neill. Ruth is a Research Associate in the Wanner Extension Entomology Lab at Montana State University, who cooperates on a variety of projects related to insect pests of crops. She has experience as a hobbyist beekeeper, and has a special interest in honey bee health and protection.