The History of Honey as Medicine

Learn about the healing history of honey as medicine, how it can improve your health and how to know you’re buying sustainable products.

| November/December 2014

  • Check this chart to determine the sustainability of a bee-produced product.
  • We have more than 4,000 years of recorded use of honey as medicine from the ancient world to the present.
    Photo by Thomas Gibson
  • Just as humans, bees need a well-balanced diet to produce quality honey.
    Photo by Thomas Gibson
  • Honey varieties come in a wide array of colors and textures, and offer different medicinal benefits, depending on factors such as the types of plants the bees visited, the quantity of water in the honey and how it was processed.
    Photo by Thomas Gibson

I’m still inspired when someone comes up to our farmers market booth and asks if there is any truth in the idea that honey is a health food. For me, a beekeeper and honey enthusiast for 10 years, it’s difficult to imagine that people in the U.S. still think of honey as just a sweetener. Honey’s many medicinal benefits have been employed throughout recorded history, and today we know more than ever about its scientifically backed healing properties.

History of Honey

In North America, the honeybee we know today was an import, brought with European settlers in the 17th century. Before that, this continent had native bees that did not collect as much honey. American Indians probably collected honey from wild hives, though we don’t have much in the way of historical evidence.

The settlers who brought the bee here clearly understood her value. Yet at some point American culture came to doubt the medicinal quality of honey. Most likely this occurred when Western medicine came to the forefront and cast aspersions on folk healing. We are only now beginning to accept the value of honey as a medicine again with the help of modern medical studies that are returning honey to the hospital for the treatment of diabetic sores and burns, and into medicated bandages for everyday cuts.

Despite our forgetfulness here in the West, the worldwide use of honey as medicine has continued uninterrupted since ancient times. In Egypt, honey figured prominently in the maintenance of life and preparations for death. In ancient Greece, Hippocrates used it as a base for most of his formulations, a practice continued in the works of the medical greats such as Galen and Dioscorides. We have more than 4,000 years of recorded use of honey as medicine from the ancient world to the present. It has even been successfully used as battlefield medicine from the time of The Iliad to as recently as World War I.

Types of Honey

Perhaps some of the reason people doubt the truth of honey’s healing powers lies in its variability. We still believe honey is honey. We know that it is antibacterial, but when someone in one part of the world touts honey as a cure-all for chest congestion, we doubt this lofty assertion rather than observing that their honey is collected in a grove of eucalyptus trees.

Lab tests show that various types of honey differ in their amounts of vitamins and minerals because every honey sample is made up of a different compilation of nectars. Depending which plants bees are visiting, honey can take on “supercharged” levels of certain nutrients and beneficial phytochemicals.

11/5/2015 9:26:35 PM

Question number 1 to ask Beekeepers is not a good question. Herbs are chemicals, so suggesting that beekeepers use herbs rather than chemicals is misleading. Some of the herbs or "natural" remedies are more toxic than some synthetic chemicals. The real question to ask is if the beekeeper uses IPM (Integrated Pest Management) to make educated decisions about disease and parasite treatments. There is no such thing as a "chemical free" hive...water and sugar are both chemicals, and the bees bring both of those in. "Chemical free" is a marketing term used by persons who are trying to sell product to folks that don't think too hard about what they are really buying.

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