Healing so sweetly


by Mollie Doyle


Gabriela Herman

Lindsey Scott admires a frame of raw honey comb, the color of which changes depending on the seasonal flowers and nectar.  

Tim Colon, proprietor of the Island Bee Company and a commercial beekeeper tells me, “Ask five beekeepers how to do something and you’ll get five different answers.”

Let’s start at the beginning, with Suzan Bellincampi, beekeeper and Felix Neck Director. “Honey was found in the tombs in Egypt. They had floating apiaries on the Nile that moved with the flow of nectar,” says Suzan. “People have been eating it for thousands of years and it is the only food that doesn’t have a shelf life.”

Suzan’s interest in bees began when she was in the Peace Corps in Niger, West Africa, and worked with a local beekeeper. She describes the experience, “We’d meet and talk in Zarma [the indigenous language] about his straw hives. He would always offer me a shot glass of honey—it was his gift, the most important thing he could share. I began to taste the change in the seasons in the honey. It would be liquidy some months and then grow more solid as the nectar and plants changed. This peaked my interest in honey and the natural world.”

For those who don’t know, honey is basically bee barf. Bees suck a tiny bit of nectar, which is essentially sucrose and water, from up to 500 flowers. The nectar moves from their straw-like tongues into a special belly for honey (they have another for their food, which is connected to this belly). Many texts and websites refer to this honey belly as their “honey backpack.” Once their honey belly is full, they travel back to the hive. Within about one-half hour of eating nectar, a digestive enzyme in their honey bellies, invertase, turns the sucrose into glucose and fructose. Then another enzyme, glucose oxidase, turns a small portion of the glucose into gluconic acid and hydrogen peroxide. The hydrogen peroxide acts on any harmful bacteria, mold, or fungi, and the gluconic acid makes the honey have a low ph, which keeps bacteria, mold, and fungi permanently away. Once they arrive at the hive, the honeybees egest the honey out of their bellies into the comb. Then, the hive’s honeybees reduce the moisture of the honey by fanning their wings over it, which makes the liquid even more impervious to harmful microbes. Finally, when the comb is full and ready, they seal it and move onto the next empty comb.

Dr. Paavo Airola, one of the earliest advocates of antioxidants, writes in his book Health Secrets, “Honey is a perfect food. It contains large amounts of vitamins, minerals, being particularly rich in vitamins B and C. It contains almost all vitamins of the B-complex, which are needed in the system for the digestion and metabolism for sugar. Honey is also rich in minerals such as calcium, phosphorous, magnesium, potassium, silicon, etc.”

More recently, the Journal of the American College of Nutrition has published findings that honey is a valuable resource for healing. Doctors Stefan Bogdanov, PhD, Tomislav Jurendic, Robert Sieber, PhD, and Peter Gallmann, PhD write, “Honey has been shown to possess antimicrobial, antiviral, antiparasitory, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, antimutagenic and antitumor effects.”

But while many people and books, including Cal Orey’s The Healing Powers of Honey, espouse honey’s healing powers— it lowers the risk of heart disease, enhances the immune system, treats respiratory diseases—I wondered how much is good for a person to consume—especially with its high sugar and carbohydrate quotient.  According to the USDA one tablespoon of honey has 64 calories, of which 17.30 is carbohydrate, and 3.59 grams of sugar. Tim Colon agreed, “With the rate of obesity and diabetes in this country, [honey] is not something that you want to encourage people to eat in large amounts.”

Dr. James F. Balch and Phyllis A. Balch agree with Tim. In their book, Prescription for Healing, they warn, “People who have diabetes or hypoglycemia should be careful when consuming honey and its byproducts. These substances affect blood sugar levels in the same way that refined sugars do.” They also note that different honeys have different fructose levels. According to Dr. Balch and Phyllis A. Balch: “Tupelo honey contains more fructose than other types of honey and it is absorbed at a slower rate, so some people with hypoglycemia can use this type sparingly without ill effects.” On the Vineyard, tupelos are called beetlebung trees. The bottom line: although honey is 100% natural, it is still a sugar. And we all know that any kind of sugar in large doses is not good for us. According to Cal Orey, The American Heart Association recommends no more than 5 teaspoons of honey for women and 8 for men a day. This is a modest amount.

The Island beekeepers I talked to don’t use much. Randi Baird, beekeeper and founder of the Island Grown Bee School, told me, “I sometimes have it in my tea, and my husband and kids have a bit of it on their toast every morning, and that’s about it.”

The good news is that ingesting honey is only one way to benefit from it. Because honey has antibacterial qualities, there are some very cool topical applications. In her book Robbing the Bees, Holley Bishop explains, in layman’s terms, what honey can do. She writes, “When applied to an infection, the absorbent sugars in honey act as healing sponges, draining intruding organisms of their liquid essence and causing them to shrivel and die. At the same time the sugars nourish healthy cells and encourage white blood cells in their healing battles. Antioxidants, amino acids, and vitamins in the natural ointment reduce inflammation and speed the growth of healthy tissue.” Honey is as effective (if not more so) for mild cuts, abrasions, and burns as hydrogen peroxide and Neosporin type products combined.

But there is a caveat: because it is made in nature with a variety of nectars and handled by all sorts of different beekeepers and techniques, not all honey is the same. For instance, there is much controversy about commercially sold honey coming from China, India, and Asia at large, which has had lethal pesticides and a suspicious lack of pollen. I tried to reach Texas A&M Professor and scientist Vaughn Bryant to talk about his discovery of the lack of pollen in Asian honey, which, depending upon your world view, makes this not honey (all US made honey has pollen) or just “processed” honey, but never heard back.

Tim Colon believes that the honey coming from Asia is not honey. “It is processed sugar made to look like honey.” Many other beekeepers disagree with Tim. At this time, neither the USDA nor the FDA has a definition of honey, which means that trade-wise, anything goes. But no matter where beekeepers and scientists stand on the global trade issue, I found that they all agreed on one thing: buying local honey. As Tim said, “Then you know.”