Honey: A Deeper Inspection Beyond Winnie the Pooh’s Fondness

Winnie the Pooh © Walt Disney

Ever wondered what made Winnie the Pooh disguise himself as a black cloud, float up using the blue balloon and stick his hand inside the beehive to get what’s in it? Well, some might say it’s the luxuriant sweetness of the golden, thick syrup. Man’s oldest sweetener may be a sugary delicacy, but not only that; the medical benefits of honey exceed those of any other naturally-occurring substance. This fact was realized thousands of years ago even before it can be scientifically explained by modern research.

It is a fact known to all, even children—thanks to a friendly, yellow bear called Winnie!—that honey comes from: honeybees! These fascinating creatures build up one of nature’s most synchronized and synergistic societies; every member working with the other in perfect harmony and amazing, unending energy to make the entire hive survive. All for one and one for all seems like the basic guideline all honeybees abide by.

The bee society is a rather…feminist one. Most of the colony is composed of females; only 300 to 3000 drone—or male—bees, 20000 to 40000 female worker bees, and only one queen per hive[1]. Only the queen is capable of reproducing, a result of the fact that she has fully developed ovaries, and is fertile for her 3 to 5 years long life and can mate with several drone bees only once, laying 2000 eggs daily. Fertilized eggs become worker bees, incapable of reproducing, and unfertilized eggs become drone bees, which are kept on standby during the summer for mating with a virgin queen. Because the drone has a barbed sex organ, mating is followed by death of the drone. The drone does not have a stinger. Because they are of no use in the winter, drones are expelled from the hive in the autumn[2]. Can anyone question girl-power anymore? Not from where those male bees are looking!

Honey is created by honeybees as a source of food to be stored for later usage, when fresh sources are scarce—an example of such times, the harsh coldness of the winter[3]. Honey formation is quite a complex process, starting with the familiar beginning, of the bees leaving the hive to make friends with flowers in the spring, hence acquiring the nectar, then returning to begin the more intricate and detailed part of the process.

Once back in the hive, working together, the bees use their “honey stomachs” to ingest and regurgitate the nectar several times repeatedly, until it is semi-digested[4]. After that, it is stored in wax honeycomb cells, which are left unsealed. But, because the water and natural yeasts’ content is still high in the semi-digested and stored nectar, the high sugar-content of the product may subject it to the danger of fermentation[5].

honeybee picture found at Wikimedia Commons

So, to prevent that, and after the final regurgitation, the worker bees fan out their wings inside the hives. This produces a strong current of air which promotes water evaporation, hence concentrating the sugars in the honey even more and preventing fermentation. That is why ripened honey has a very long shelf life if properly sealed[6].

Honey has a lot of significance in a lot of societies, be it a religious societies, or ancient ones.

Historically, honey was used by the Ancient Egyptians as sweetener for cakes and biscuits, and, along with other Middle Eastern societies, they used it in embalming the dead[7]. It was also used as offerings to ancient, mythological Gods, such as Min, the God of Fertility[8]. Other empires, such as the Roman one, used honey as currency, more valuable than gold[9], as well as used by Mayans, and Greeks for variety of other purposes. It is even suggested by the author and researcher, Eva Crane, that honey was used even before these ancient times[10].

As for religiously, in Islam, there is an entire Surah in the Holy Qur’an, called “Al Nahl” (Eng: The Honeybees), which promotes honey’s high nutritional value in the 68th and 69th verses, which translate to:

“And your Lord inspired the bees, saying: “Take you habitations in the mountains and in the trees and in what they erect. (68) Then, eat of all fruits, and follow the ways of your Lord made easy (for you).” There comes forth from their bellies, a drink of varying color wherein is healing for men. Verily, in this is indeed a sign for people who think.(69)”[11]

And in Hadith, Prophet Mohammed, peace by upon him, strongly recommended honey for healing purposes[12], bringing to light its high nutritious value and strong healing properties centuries before any scientific evidence was produced to prove the medicinal uses of honey. Also, in Jewish traditions, honey, along with apples, plays an important role in signaling the beginning of the New Year feasts[13], and in the Hebrew Bible, the “Promised Land” is said to have rivers flowing with milk and honey[14].

Moreover, in other ethnic beliefs, such as Buddhism and Hinduism, honey plays a very major religious role and is frequently depicted in religious art to symbolize its importance[15].

It comes as an unnecessary piece of information to state that honey, as syrup, is the origin of the term of endearment, “honey”—as well as its abbreviation, “hon”— in western culture[16].

Honey has a great many benefits, nutritionally and medically. Hippocrates said, “Let food be your medicine and medicine be your food” and honey is just the best proof to that statement. Many Westerners used to laugh heartily when told that honey has medicinal benefits; used for sore throats, indigestion, eye-diseases…baldness and small pox! Well, despite the mockery honey received, it seems that honeybees have the very last laugh when it comes to medicinal benefits.

For over 2700 years, honey was applied topically, used for those many centuries as an antibacterial, antifungal and antimicrobial agent. This comes as a surprise to most, since bacteria just adore sugar, and honey has a plentiful supply of that, be it fructose or the glucose[17]. These antimicrobial properties are a result of its low water activity, as most of the water molecules are associated with the sugar molecules, hence reducing the amount of water in which the microorganisms can multiply. Moreover, honey has the enzyme, glucose oxidase, which activates hydrogen peroxide, which is an antibacterial[18]. Other factors, such as high acidity and methylglyoxal, contribute to honey’s disinfecting properties[19]. Honey is also has completely natural antibiotic properties[20] which are used to treat diabetic ulcers, for patients who are unable to use other topical antibiotics[21]. Honey also shows antiallergenic effects. Research proves that honey exerts this effect by inhibiting of IgE immunoglobulin binding to mast cells. This inhibited mast cell degranulation and thus reduced allergic reaction[22].

Those antibacterial effects aside, honey, along with a few tablespoons of cinnamon powder, reduces cholesterol levels in the blood by 10% within two hours of consumption. The same concoction, if taken two or three times daily by arthritis patients, is said to cure even chronic arthritis[23].

Moreover, honey has been used for centuries as a remedy for coughs and sore throats. Only recently, a study compared buckwheat honey with dextromethorphan, an ingredient in a range of branded medicines. Dextromethorphan is the most common active ingredient in children’s over-the-counter cough medicine in the US and found that honey was more effective at relieving the severity, frequency and bothersome nature of the cough and that dextromethorphan was slightly more effective than a placebo. The study, funded by the US National Honey Board, concluded that honey was the most effective treatment for all outcomes related to cough, child sleep and parent sleep[24]. This comes as a bit of an embarrassment to me, personally, since I used to laugh at mom when she used to “prescribe” honey for me whenever I sported a sore throat.

The benefits of honey are numerous. In fact, it is one of those “Super Foods”. Super Foods, simply, are foods rich in phytonutrients, which hence has a positive effect on our health [25]. What a shame, when sugar came along. If only we continued using honey as our prime sweetener, we’d all be benefiting from the richness of honey. Gathered from the nectar of flowers, honey in its raw state has some of the same antioxidants, including chrysin, pinobanksin, vitamin C, catalase, and pinocembrin, found in the plants that bees pollinate[26]. One study conducted at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign concluded that honey contains as many antioxidants as spinach, apples and strawberries. The particular antioxidants in honey have shown anti-tumor properties and are thought to be cancer preventing[27].

Processing, however, strips honey of many phytonutrients, so you should choose raw honey for optimal benefits. Also, the darker the honey, the higher antioxidant concentration it has. Dark amber honeys from buckwheat flowers, sage and tupelo are good choices. Daily consumption of these honeys has been shown to raise levels of protective antioxidants in the blood[28].

Honey Blossoms: Picture courtesy of: http://www.thefoodpaper.com/features/health/honey.html

However, some may show concern about the daily consumption of honey; will it give me diabetes? Will it make me gain weight? The answer is no, to both questions. Honey has fewer calories per teaspoon, when compared to refined sugar. In fact, research indicates that honey can play an important role in regulating insulin levels, preventing diabetes and warding off obesity [29].

But, honey is not just for everyone and anyone. It is a well known fact that honey is not to be given to babies under the age of one. This is because of the presence of Botulinum endospores in honey[30]. Adults have a well-developed gastrointestinal system, which destroys those spores before they can do any damage. The little ones, however, have underdeveloped GITs, and hence cannot ward off any damage caused by the spores and hence can extract botulism from honey[31].

The benefits of honey, as aforementioned, are numerous. An entire book, speaking solely of the health perks of the sweet treat, would not do honey justice. However, it is very clear that Winniw the Pooh had a very good reason for going through all the trouble of disguising, flying and then sticking his paw into the beehive, trying to get the honey from it.

[1] – Val Whitmyre. “The Plight of the Honeybees.” University of California. Last accessed April 14, 2007. http://groups.ucanr.org/mgnapa/Articles/Honeybees.htm

[2] – “Honeybee Facts” http://www.backyardbeekeepers.com/facts.html

[3] – National Honey Board. “Honey and Bees.” Last accessed January 10, 2010. http://www.honey.com/nhb/about-honey/honey-and-bees/

[4] – Standifer LN. “Honey Bee Nutrition And Supplemental Feeding”. Excerpted from “Beekeeping in the United States.” Last accessed April 14, 2007. http://maarec.cas.psu.edu/bkCD/HBBiology/nutrition_supplements.htm

[5] – National Honey Board. “Honey and Bees.” Last accessed January 10, 2010. http://www.honey.com/nhb/about-honey/honey-and-bees/

[6] – National Honey Board. “Honey and Bees.” Last accessed January 10, 2010. http://www.honey.com/nhb/about-honey/honey-and-bees/

[7] – Larry Gonick The Cartoon History of the Universe Vol.2

[8] – “Enchanted Heart” http://heartenchant.net/food%20triv.htm

[9] – “Honey In History, Culture and Folklore” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Honey#In_history.2C_culture.2C_and_folklore

[10] – “Archaeology of Beekeeping” by Eva Crane 1983.

[11] – Holy Qur’an Translation. (Surah number 16, 68th and 69th verses)

[12] – Sahih Bukhari vol. 7, book 71, number 584, 585, 588 and 603.

[13] – Apples and Honey in Culinary Judaism, http://www.aish.com/hhrosh/hhroshdefault/Apples_and_Honey.asp

[14] –  Milk and Honey in Culinary Judaism, http://www.gindi.co.il/culinaryjudaism/milkandhoney.html

[15] – “Honey In History, Culture and Folklore” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Honey#In_history.2C_culture.2C_and_folklore

[16] – “Honey in Western Culture” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Honey#In_Western_culture

[17] – “Honey As Medicine” Interesting Thing of the Day, http://itotd.com/articles/218/honey-as-medicine/

[18] – “Causes of the antimicrobial activity of honey”. Wahdan H (1998).

[19]Honey as an Antimicrobial Agent. Waikato Honey Research Unit. November 16, 2006. http://bio.waikato.ac.nz/honey/honey_intro.shtml. Retrieved June 2, 2007.

[20] – “Health Benefits of Honey” http://www.health-benefits-of-honey.com/healthbenefitsofhoney.html

[21] -Jennifer Eddy of UW Health’s Eau Claire Family Medicine Clinic, “UW STUDY TESTS TOPICAL HONEY AS A TREATMENT FOR DIABETIC ULCERS”, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 5/2/07

[22] -Ishikawa, Yasuko; Tokura, T; Nakano, N; Hara, M; Niyonsaba, F; Ushio, H; Yamamoto, Y; Tadokoro, T et al. (2008). “Inhibitory Effect of Honeybee-Collected Pollen on Mast Cell Degranulation In Vivo and In Vitro” Journal of Medicinal Food.

[23] – “Medical Benefits of Honey and Cinnamon” http://www.hyd-masti.com/2009/08/medical-benefits-of-honey-and-cinnamon.html

[24] – “Honey Beats Cough Medicine” The Guardian, Tuesday 4 December 2007.

[25] – World’s Healthiest Foods, in-depth nutrient profile for blueberries.

[26] – Martos I, Ferreres F, Tomás-Barberán F (2000). “Identification of flavonoid markers for the botanical origin of Eucalyptus honey”. J Agric Food Chem

[27] – “Honey: Buzzing With Benefits” http://www.thefoodpaper.com/features/health/honey.html

[28] – “Honey: Buzzing With Benefits” http://www.thefoodpaper.com/features/health/honey.html

[29] -“Health Benefits of Honey” http://www.health-benefits-of-honey.com/healthbenefitsofhoney.html

[30] – Snowdon JA, Cliver DO. Microorganism in honey. Int J Food Microbiol. 1996

[31] -National Honey Board Fact Sheet. [Access date 23 Dec. 2009]  http://www.honey.com/nhb/about-honey/frequently-asked-questions/category/honey-properties/

  1. This article is AWESOME!

  2. DAWWW! Thank youuuu! Pity that Scientific Mentality no longer gets published =( Makes me SAD! I designed the issue where this article got published ::happy….gets shot for her arrogance::

  3. 😀 i didn’t hear of Scientific Mentality before?

    if its ok with you, i can send the article to be posted on SCOME wall magazine,a unified wall magazine which will be put in medical schools around Egypt…

  4. =O Can you send it bgd?? It’s more than alright with me…please do so. I don’t think this is good enough to deserve such an honor wallahy. I’d be glad beyond belief.

    Scientific Mentality was this online magazine started by Dr. Kareem Adel (he’s on FOMSCU forum), and he invited me to be on the editorial committee, since I mentioned I had some experience with magazines before in high school.

    …<.< there's an entire sub-forum for the magazine ya Ahmad *grumbles* Can't believe you didn't hear of it before xD

  5. Would you like a word document instead of copying pasting or whatever? ^^

  6. Ma3lesh ma7dsh beyshof 7aga fel forum 😀 kot bad5ol 3la el dof3a el talta 3alatol; i just saw it now

    we ya reet law teb3atli word; it will be better, send it to: ahmadbamesah@hotmail.com

    If ur interested u can participate in SCOME “Standing Committe on Medical Education”. We do lots of projects locally and nationally and internationally, I don’t know if u heard of it. Currently we are planning for an E-campaign about problem based learning,ILOs and other stuff, we will be making articles and videos; so if u would like to share; i can meet u tommorow in college and give u more details

  7. Hey Toka,

    The national coordinator for the project said it was too long (3 pages) for a wall magazine. He told me that if you can cut it to 1 page, it would be better, coz no one will read a 3-page article on a wall magazine 😀

    If you’re busy or think it will be hard to do, that’s ok; aanyway the national deadline is 13/5

  8. I’ll see what I can do ^^ I’ll email it to you if I manage to get it done 8D

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