About honey

Honey is produced by bees but it’s not just these insects that benefit from it. This sweet tasting ingredient is considered by most as a cupboard essential as it can be added to sweet dishes and bakes, as well as more savoury recipes. It’s particularly tasty on a slice of toast or mixed into a cup of tea for a sweet treat! As well as being appetising, honey is also thought to have some health benefits. It can be mixed with lemon and warm water for example, to create a soothing liquid that’s capable of calming a sore throat or cough. So, the ingredient is highly versatile as well as beneficial for our health

Key to Honey

  • Regulates metabolic processes
  • Increases immunity
  • Honey improves blood composition
  • Helps to cope with insomnia
  • Gives energy to the body, restores strength
  • Vitamin B6, Riboflavin, Calcium, Copper, Iron, Magnesium, Phosphorus, Potassium, Sodium, Zinc

Honey is as old as history is itself. One of the earliest evidences of honey harvesting is on a rock painting dating back 8000 years, this one found in Valencia, Spain shows a honey seeker robbing a wild bee colony. The bees were subdued with smoke and the tree or rocks opened resulting in destruction of the colony.

It is difficult to appreciate in today’s world of convenience, high tech wizardry, junk food and sugar substitutes, the value of honey. Humans have eaten it, bathed in it, fixed their wounds with it and traded with it since history was recorded. Archaeologists discovered honeycomb in Egypt that had been buried with the pharaohs in their tombs, the honey was preserved and was still eatable.

In the old testament, the land of Israel was often referred to as the “land flowing of milk and honey”. God nourished Jacob with honey from the rock, and gave Israel fine flour, olive oil and honey. John the Baptist ate locusts and wild honey. Honey is mention in the scrolls of the Orient, the Talmud and Koran.

The Romans used honey to heal their wounds after battles. Hannibal, a great warrior gave his army honey and vinegar as they crossed the alps on elephants to battle Rome. During the 10 centuries, the Kings and Queens of England had fermented honey wine (Mead), the Edmeades family produced some of these.

Honey has been used for many thousands of years; in fact, most man’s history has references to it. Not surprising though, it is an organic natural sugar, has no additives, easy on the stomach, if stored correctly will have an almost indefinite shelf life and easily adapted to cooking processes.

It is not entirely clear but about 4000 BC, the Egyptians started keeping bees in a cylinder of unbaked hardened mud pots, stacking them in rows to form a bank. Some beekeepers in Egypt moved their hives on rafts down the Nile, following the blossoms. The Greeks modified the Egyptian design baking the mud into a sturdier terra cotta. (1450BC). They called the honey “nectar from the gods”.

Another design using hollow logs hung from trees and is still used in Africa today. Others include woven cylinders, skeps and rectangular boxes made from wood. The theme is all the same, a long low cavity with a small entrance hole at one end and a door at the other. It was in Europe where apiculture made its greatest advances in development and bee biology. In 1851, Rev. Langstroth from Philadelphia designed the Langstroth movable bee frame.

Religious Importance

In ancient Greek religion, the food of Zeus and the twelve Gods of Olympus was honey in the form of nectar and ambrosia.

In Hinduism, honey (Madhu) is one of the five elixirs of life (पञ्चामृत Panchamrita). In temples, honey is poured over the deities in a ritual called Madhu abhisheka. The Vedas and other ancient literature mention the use of honey as a great medicinal and health food.

In Jewish tradition, honey is a symbol for the new year, Rosh Hashanah. At the traditional meal for that holiday, apple slices are dipped in honey and eaten to bring a sweet new year. Some Rosh Hashanah greetings show honey and an apple, symbolizing the feast. In some congregations, small straws of honey are given out to usher in the new year.

The Hebrew Bible contains many references to honey. In the Book of Judges, Samson found a swarm of bees and honey in the carcass of a lion (14:8). Biblical law covered offerings made in the temple to God. The Book of Leviticus says that “Every grain offering you bring to the Lord must be made without yeast, for you are not to burn any yeast or honey in a food offering presented to the Lord” (2:11). In the Books of Samuel, Jonathan is forced into a confrontation with his father King Saul after eating honey in violation of a rash oath Saul has made. Proverbs 16:24 in the JPS Tanakh 1917 version says “Pleasant words are as a honeycomb, Sweet to the soul, and health to the bones.” Book of Exodus famously describes the Promised Land as a “land flowing with milk and honey” (33:3). However, most Biblical commentators write that the original Hebrew in the Bible (דבש devash) refers to the sweet syrup produced from the juice of dates (silan). In 2005 an apiary dating from the 10th century B.C. was found in Tel Rehov, Israel that contained 100 hives, estimated to produce half a ton of honey annually. Pure honey is considered kosher (permitted to be eaten by religious Jews), though it is produced by a flying insect, a non-kosher creature; eating other products of non-kosher animals is forbidden. It belongs among the parve (neutral) foods, containing neither meat nor dairy products and allowed to be eaten together with either.

In Buddhism, honey plays an important role in the festival of Madhu Purnima, celebrated in India and Bangladesh. The day commemorates Buddha’s making peace among his disciples by retreating into the wilderness. According to legend, while he was there a monkey brought him honey to eat. On Madhu Purnima, Buddhists remember this act by giving honey to monks. The monkey’s gift is frequently depicted in Buddhist art.

The Christian New Testament (Matthew 3:4) says that John the Baptist lived for a long of time in the wilderness on a diet of locusts and honey.

In Islam, an entire chapter (Surah) in the Qur’an is called an-Nahl (the Bees). According to his teachings (hadith), Muhammad strongly recommended honey for healing purposes. The Qur’an promotes honey as a nutritious and healthy food, saying: And thy Lord taught the Bee to build its cells in hills, on trees, and in (men’s) habitations; Then to eat of all the produce (of the earth), and find with skill the spacious paths of its Lord: there issues from within their bodies a drink of varying colours, wherein is healing for men: verily in this is a Sign for those who give thought [Al-Quran 16:68–69]

  • Honeybees must gather nectar from two million flowers to make one pound of honey.
  • One bee has to fly about 90,000 miles – three times around the globe – to make one pound of honey.
  • The average bee will make only 1/12th of a teaspoon of honey in its lifetime.
  • A honeybee visits 50 to 100 flowers during a collection trip.
  • A honeybee can fly for up to six miles, and as fast as 15 miles per hour.
  • The bee’s brain is oval and about the size of a sesame seed, yet it has a remarkable capacity to learn and remember things. For example, it can make complex calculations on distance travelled and foraging efficiency.
  • Honeybees communicate with one another by dancing.
  • A colony of bees consists of 20,000-60,000 honeybees and one queen. Worker honeybees are female, live for about 6 weeks and do all the work.
  • The queen bee can live up to 5 years and is the only bee that lays eggs. She is the busiest in the summer months when the hive needs to be at its maximum strength and lays up to 2500 eggs per day.
  • Larger than the worker bees, the male honeybees (also called drones), have no stinger and do no work. All they do is mate.
  • Honey has always been highly regarded as a medicine. It is thought to help with everything from sore throats and digestive disorders to skin problems and hay fever.
  • Honey has antiseptic properties and was historically used as a dressing for wounds and a first aid treatment for burns and cuts.
  • The natural fruit sugars in honey – fructose and glucose – are quickly digested by the body. Therefore, sportsmen and athletes use honey to give them a natural energy boost.
  • Honeybees have been producing honey in the same way for 150 million years.
  • The honeybee is the only insect that produces food eaten by man.
  • Honey lasts an incredibly long time. An explorer who found a 2000-year-old jar of honey in an Egyptian tomb said it tasted delicious!
  • The bees’ buzz is the sound made by their wings which beat 11,400 times per minute.
  • When a bee finds a good source of nectar it flies back to the hive and shows its friends where the nectar source is by doing a dance which positions the flower in relation to the sun and hive. This is known as the ‘waggle dance.’
  • Honey’s ability to attract and retain moisture means that it has long been used as a beauty treatment. It was part of Cleopatra’s daily beauty ritual.
  • Honey is incredibly healthy and includes enzymes, vitamins, minerals. It is the only food that contains “pinocembrin”, an antioxidant associated with improved brain functioning.

Haematology and immunity

Honey has been found to be beneficial to people suffering from anaemia. Ajibola et al. (2007) reported enhanced blood profiles in floral honey-fed adult rats. The study recorded improved haemoglobin concentration (iron constituent of NH played an important role in this), increased erythrocyte count and elevated haematocrit in the honey eaters. In another laboratory, Chepulis (2007) also documented enhanced haematology and immune response in rats fed 10% honeydew honey supplemented diet. The author noted higher lymphocyte count and increased neutrophil phagocytosis in NH-fed rats than control. This aligned with previous research that prebiotics can enhance immune function and NH is known to contain the prebiotics, oligosaccharides. Human subjects administered with two honey treatments in a Californian study show that honey eaters have the benefit of haemato protection in addition to blood proliferation. The researchers observed that the aqueous portion of the blood (plasma) is protected by honey. This is in agreement with the fact that most of the antioxidant components in processed honey are water soluble. In summarizing the facts that honey can be considered to be a satisfactory immuno-nutrient, some workers opine that the oral administration of natural honey can stimulate and increase the production of antibody during primary and secondary immune responses against the T-cells of the thymus-dependent as well as the thymus independent antigens.

Oral health

The use of NH can promote oral health and wellness. Molan opines that honey with high level of antibacterial activity has the potential to reduce the risk of dental caries. In addition to the carioprotective effect of New Zealand manuka honey (a very potent antimicrobial honey), Molan and co-workers have shown from his extensive work on the influence of honey on oral health that honey prevents dental plaque, gingivitis, periodontics. Other workers in different laboratories have also shown that honey is non-cariogenic or less cariogenic than sucrose. The carioprotective effect of honey has been adduced to its antibacterial property, which prevents the growth of the bacteria that can cause dental caries. In one electron microscopy study, honey consumption was found to be safer and less inimical to oral health than drinking fruit juice. There was a report of the tooth enamel being eroded just ten minutes after the consumption of fruit juice, while honey ingestion delayed this observation till half an hour after the intake of NH, and this erosion of teeth was not even as prominent or visible as that observed in the fruit juice eaters. The plausible explanation for the less cariogenic effect of honey is the protective role of NH constituents which include calcium, fluoride, phosphorous and other colloidal honey components. In summary, it can be concluded that honey has constituents with cario-protective effect.


Anecdotal evidences advocate the medicinal use of NH as therapeutic agent against the ailments of the GIT in the past. These are presently being supported by the global medicinal use of NH for the prevention, cure and the treatments of some GIT disorders such as ulcers, gastritis and gastroenteritis. Honey has been shown to be a gastroprotective agent. Its potency in inhibiting the activity of Helicobacter pylori, that causes gastritis and peptic ulcers have been well documented. In experimental rats, NH mitigated gastrointestinal assaults caused by alcohol, ammonia, aspirin and indomethacin. Two mechanisms have been proposed to be responsible for this protective action of honey. The first suggests that this effect is due to the antioxidant properties of honey. NH was found to maintain or enhance the level of non-protein sulfhydyl substances (such as glutathione) in gastric tissue subjected to factors inducing ulceration. Similar observation was made when Anzer honey pre-treatment was used to prevent N-ethylmaleimide (NEM) -induced liver damage in rats. The findings imply that depletion of glutathione concentration plays an aetiological role in NEM-induced liver injury, and that the hepatoprotective effect of Anzer honey may be mediated through the sulfhydryl sensitive processes. The authors concluded that honey possess antioxidant properties.

According to some authors, the second mechanism of action being proposed shows that honey intake stimulates the sensory nerves in the stomach, and this proprioceptive effect is in response to capsaicin. This mechanism involves the reduction of ulcer index, vascular permeability, and muscular activity of the stomach. Other authors also explained this phenomenon by reporting the mitigating effect of dandelion honey intake against gastric juice acidity by more than 50%. One study reported a slower passage rate of gastric content of saccharides after the intake of NH than that after ingestion of a mixture simulating honey that is glucose and fructose mixture, and thus, mitigating diarrhoea. The clinical uses of honey in infants and children revealed shorter duration of diarrhoea caused by bacteria. In the same vein, NH also reduced the pathogenesis and duration of viral diarrhoea unlike that associated with the use of conventional antibacterial therapy. Honey was also found to be beneficial in maintaining blood-sugar levels. In honey, there is little water available to promote the growth of bacteria and yeast. In addition, honey’s natural acidity inhibits some pathogens, as it has an amount of hydrogen peroxide and other substances contributing to its antibacterial effect.


The use of honey in the treatment of eye diseases is well documented. The ancient people used honey from Attica, and Indian lotus honey as curative substances for eye disorders. The Indian locals still use NH as eye drops to cure eye disease till today. The Malian people used NH as a tradomedicinal therapeutic agent against measles. The NH was usually applied on the eyes to prevent the scarring effect of the cornea which occurs as a complication of the measles infection. There was an astounding success reported from NH application in clinical trials of 102 patients with different ophthalmological disorders such as (blepharitis, conjunctivitis and keratitis), hitherto not responding to conventional treatment. After the NH application under the lower eyelid like an eye ointment, improvement was seen in 85% of the cases, with no deterioration seen in any of the other 15%. However, a transient stinging sensation and redness of the eye was observed soon after putting honey in the eye, but not enough to halt the treatment in all the 102 cases in the trial. The use of NH application in ophthalmology in Asia and Eastern Europe has also been reported by Molan in the review on NH use in ophthalmology. In one Indian Medical College, an Ophthalmic Surgeon successfully treated bacterial caused corneal ulcers with the topical application of NH. The same paper documented Meier referring to NH being used for the treatment of eyes discharging pus. Molan (1999) also cited Russian authors, Mozherenkov and Prokof’eva that document a review on the use of honey in ophthalmology. The Russian authors observed antibacterial, antifungal and anti-inflammatory actions with the honey application to the eye under the lower eyelid. It has been used for the treatment of burns to the eye caused by chemical and thermal agents, as well as conjunctivitis, and corneal infections. This is usually done by the topical application of the undiluted NH on the affected eyes, or alternatively as a solution containing about 50% water, without any loss of potency.

Metabolic and cardiovascular effects

It has been shown that honey intake ameliorates risk factors of metabolic and cardiovascular diseases in patients and healthy individuals at risk. Unlike refined sugars, diabetic patients can safely and harmlessly eat this natural and sweetest sugar (fructose)-containing product, natural honey. According to Costa-Neto (1999) reported by Santos and Antonini, the Pankararé tribe of Brazil even recommended honey’s use for the treatment of diabetes mellitus, bronchitis, mycosis, and throat aches amidst other ailments. Recently in our laboratory, we fed male and female rats with NH or sugar (golden syrup, GS) supplemented diet for 12 weeks from 7 days of age to compare their metabolic response, and see if NH is protective against metabolic syndrome (MetS). This MetS is a condition characterized by abdominal obesity, hyperglycaemia, hypertension and dyslipidaemia, and thus increased susceptibility to diabetes, kidney and heart diseases. In male rats, GS significantly increased (p < 0.05) blood levels of metabolic substrates (glucose and triglycerides, TGs); and caused enhanced (p < 0.001) visceral adiposity, hypercholesterolemia, hyperinsulinemia, hepatomegaly and fatty liver. These CVDs and metabolic diseases’ risk factors were not observed in the NH-fed rats in this trial. We concluded that honey is cardio-protective, and its (NH) consumption could not induce MetS [unpublished results]. These results confirmed the conclusion drawn from earlier study that substituting honey for refined carbohydrates was beneficial. Earlier researches from other laboratories and clinical trials further affirmed the metabolic and cardiovascular health significance of eating honey by recording some health profiles. These were reduction in the plasma levels of risk factors which include total cholesterol; low density lipoprotein (LDL)-cholesterol; TGs; glucose in normal and diabetic patients; C-reactive protein; while the health indices elevated in the blood were high density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol. In addition, other workers recorded higher plasma antioxidants levels in rats nurtured with natural honey relative to fructose-fed rats, and consequently low susceptibility of these subjects to CVDs.

Chemotherapy and wounds management

Honey has antiseptic properties, good for treating burns, infected surgical wounds and ulcers. Glenys Round, a Cancer Specialist and Julie Betts in Waikato Hospital, New Zealand reported excellent results of the therapy from patients with fungating wounds, recalcitrant leg ulcers and pressure sores using the Unique Manuka Factor (UMF)-containing honey known as manuka honey. According to the Specialist, the application of honey dressings was used in these patients (including those with cancer broken through the skin), after failure of healing from conventional treatments which include radiation therapy. Another Researcher successfully treated experimental surgical wounds in Nigerian Dwarf goats with blossom honey. He observed epithelialisation and significantly higher contraction of the NH treated wounds relative to untreated wounds. Other several workers had also used honey for the same purpose in human surgical wards and on experimental animals. A comprehensive review of effect of honey on wounds is available elsewhere.

Antimicrobial activity

Natural honey is a very potent broad spectrum antibiotic which most multi-resistant bacteria are found sensitive to Alvarez-Suarez and co-workers confirm this in their report and opine that antimicrobial activity is present in all types of honey. The workers suggest that hydrogen peroxide formation may play an important role as antibacterial natural products for minimizing the invasive effects of bacterial infections in the native monofloral Cuban honeys analysed. Although, the Cuban honeys varied in their chemical constituents’ values, all still exhibit antimicrobial activity against both Gram-positive and Gram-negative bacteria which include Bacillus subtilis, Pseudomonas aeruginosa, Staphylococcus aureus and Escherichia coli. The bacteria and other micro-organisms infections responsive to NH treatment.

Nutritional composition of honey
Blossom Honey
Honeydew Honey
Water 15 – 20 17.2 15 – 20 16.3
Total sugars 79.7 80.5
  fructose 30 – 45 38.2 28 – 40 31.8
  glucose 24 – 40 31.3 19 – 32 26.1
  sucrose 0.1 – 4.8 0.7 0.1 – 4.7 0.5
  others 2.0 – 8.0 5 1.0 – 6.0 4
  oligosaccharides 3.1 10.1
  erlose 0.5 – 6.0 0.8 0.1 – 6.0 0.1
  melezitose < 0.1 0.3 – 22 4
  others 0.5 – 1.0 0.5 0.1 – 6.0 3
Minerals 0.1 – 0.5 0.2 0.6 – 2.0 0.9
Amino acids, proteins 0.2 – 0.4 0.3 0.4 – 0.7 0.6
Acids 0.2 – 0.8 0.5 0.8 – 1.5 1.1
pH value 3.2 – 4.5 3.9 4.5 – 6.5 5.2



Chemical elements found in honey
Amount (mg/100 g)
Amount (mg/100 g)
Sodium (Na) 1.6 – 17 Thiamine (B1) 0.00 – 0.01
Calcium (Ca) 3 – 31 Riboflavin (B2) 0.01 – 0.02
Potassium (K) 40 – 3500 Niacin (B3) 0.10 – 0.20
Magnesium (Mg) 0.7 – 13 Pantothenic acid (B5) 0.02 – 0.11
Phosphorus (P) 2 – 15 Pyridoxine (B6) 0.01 – 0.32
Selenium (Se) 0.002 – 0.01 Folic acid (B9) 0.002 – 0.01
Copper (Cu)a 0.02 – 0.6 Ascorbic acid (C) 2.2 – 2.5
Iron (Fe)a 0.03 – 4 Phyllochinon (K) 0.025
Manganese (Mn)a 0.02 – 2
Chromium (Cr)a 0.01 – 0.3
Zinc (Zn)a 0.05 – 2



Other chemical elements found in honey
Amount (mg/100 g)
Amount (mg/100 g)
Aluminium (Al) 0.01 – 2.4 Lead (Pb)a,b 0.001 – 0.03
Arsenic (As)a,b 0.014 – 0.026 Lithium (Li) 0.225 – 1.56
Barium (Ba) 0.01 – 0.08 Molybdenum (Mo)a 0 – 0.004
Boron (B) 0.05 – 0.3 Nickel (Ni)a 0 – 0.051
Bromine (Br) 0.4 – 1.3 Rubidium (Rb) 0.040 – 3.5
Cadmium (Cd)a,b 0 – 0.001 Silicon (Si) 0.05 – 24
Chlorine (Cl) 0.4 – 56 Strontium (Sr) 0.04 – 0.35
Cobalt (Co)a 0.1 – 0.35 Sulphur (S) 0.7 – 26
Fluoride (F) 0.4 – 1.34 Vanadium (V) 0 – 0.013
Iodide (I) 10 – 100 Zirconium (Zr) 0.05 – 0.08
*Adapted from [2,3]aHeavy metals.
bToxic heavy metals listed amongst the first 20 top hazardous substances in the priority list compiled by ATSDR thus 1 : Ar, 2 : Pb, 7 : Cd; Presence and toxicity in NH can be due to contamination through human error or inimical practices.
List of Bacteria and other Organisms found to be sensitive to honey
Actinomyces pyogenes
Pseudomonas aeruginosa
Bacillus anthracis Rubella virus
Campylobacter coli Salmonella cholerae-suis
Campylobacter jejuni Salmonella typhi
Candida albicans Salmonella typhimurium
Corynebacterium diphtheria Serrata marcescens
Echinococcus parasite Shigella species
Enterococcus avium Staphylococcus aureus
Enterococcus faecalis Streptococcus agalactiae
Enterococcus faecium Streptococcus dysgalactiae
Enterococcus raffinosus Streptococcus faecalis uberis
Epidermophyton floccosum Streptococcus mutans
Escherichia coli Streptococcus pneumonia
Haemophilus influenza Streptococcus pyogenes
Helicobacter pylori Streptococcus uberis
Klebsiella pneumonia Serrata marcescens
Leishmania parasite Shigella species
Microsporum canis Trichophyton mentagrophytes
Microsporum gypseum Trichophyton mentagrophytes var.
Mycobacterium tuberculosis Trichophyton tonsurans
Nocardia asteroids Trichophyton rubrum
Proteus species Vibrio choleriae
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