Honey, Healing and Hayfever

Many hayfever sufferers find a daily dose of local honey to be helpful in controlling their symptoms but how can this bee?

Composition of Honey

Honey is a complex mixture of sugars dissolved in no more than 20% water. So long as the water content is below 20% honey is not readily metabolised by bacteria or fungi including yeast.

The sugars make up 97% of honey excluding water. The 3 main ones are dextrose, levulose and sucrose but there are also other lesser known ones such as kojibiose, isomaltose, nigerose, ab trehalose, gentiobiose, laminaribiose, meleziotose, maltotriose, turanose, 1-kestose, panose, maltulose, isomaltotriose, erlose, theanderose, and O-a-D-glucopyranosyl-(1->6) -O-a-D-glucopyranosyl-D-fructose… the list goes on through about 25 or more in total.

The remaining 3% comprises minerals, trace elements, vitamins, proteins and enzymes and pollen.

So what exactly is responsible for the healing?


Apart from being a healthy alternative to sugar it has curative benefits including antibiotic properties which can be effective in treating sore throats, skin complaints and open wounds such as ulcers. There is also some evidence to show that if honey is applied to burns it will help them to heal. I personally know a beekeeper whose daughter was badly burned as a child. The surgeons told him his daughter’s arm would be scarred for life. He was the son of a long line of beekeepers and did not accept this; he knew a recipe for a burns remedy including honey and beeswax and he applied this remedy to his daughter’s burns daily. The result was that the child’s wounds healed without scars in a few short weeks.

The observable antibiotic activity in honey is mostly due to the activity of the enzyme glucose oxidase which is probably the most important enzyme in honey – it originates in the pharyngeal glands of bees so it is added by the bees and therefore must have some purpose. Its effect is to oxidise glucose to gluconic acid a reaction which launches a two pronged attack on bacteria. The creation of gluconic acid contributes to the background acidity of honey which in turn has a preservative effect by suppressing the growth of bacteria. But there’s more – a by-product of this reaction is hydrogen peroxide which is a powerful antibiotic. The reputation of honey as an antibiotic is due mostly to the action of hydrogen peroxide.

Glucose oxidase can withstand temperatures up to 60 degrees centigrade after which it will become permanently denatured and no longer chemically active – effectively a dead molecule. Mass produced honey is routinely heated to over 75 degrees to pasteurise it. Pasteurisation is not necessary so long as honey is ripe. Beekeepers know this and only warm the honey sufficient to run it through a fine cloth to remove debris. Pollen and colloids pass through the cloth.

Manuka honey, which is a produced in New Zealand by bees foraging on the Leptospermum scoparium, has an additional active ingredient methylglyoxal and it seems to have more pronounced antiseptic activity than other honeys. However, recent studies in Sligo have produced comparable results using Irish honey and in Scotland, honey from Portobello Community Orchard has been found to have antibacterial activity similar to that of Manuka.


Hayfever is a terrible thing to bear if you have it. Some people believe that a daily dose of a tablespoon of local honey will help, the rationale being that the honey contains the pollens of the local flora and therefore if it is eaten regularly – the exposure will de-sensitise them. Some people swear by it although there is little scientific evidence to prove it. It is worth a try, it can do no harm and at the very least – it’s something nice to eat.

However, if your hayfever comes on late in the summer the chances are that you are allergic to grass pollens in which case no amount of honey will help as grasses are wind pollinated and not visited at all by bees.

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