Toward the end of this month and throughout the rest of the summer, signs will start to appear along New England’s back roads and at farm stands and stores announcing the arrival of “Fresh Local Honey.” Gretel Clark of Hamilton and other area beekeepers are hoping customers will stock up on the delectable substance.
For Clark, a naturalist who has painstakingly tended bees for more than 30 years, honey production is both a hobby and a labor of love. “It takes a good two or three months once spring arrives to have enough seasoned honey for me to even think about harvesting it,” says Clark. “Bees need the food they bring in to the hive for their young and to sustain them through the winter.”
Clark says she waits until the bees have an ample surplus. As they accumulate more honey, she adds more boxes, which are like the bees’ storage rooms. She then harvests, spins out and jars the “extra” honey and sells it from her home, often allowing customers the benefit of paying by “the honor system.”
As summertime flowers blossom, bees become increasingly more active in gathering nectar that they turn into honey. Healthy colonies consist of about 60,000 bees, Clark explains, and each bee survives only about six weeks. The queen, who lays 1,500 to 2,000 eggs a day, lives up to three years. The industrious colony feeds and grooms her, heats the hive (which needs to be maintained at more than 90 degrees) and fans off moisture from the nectar they have collected with the movement of their wings – an amazing process.
Why Do Bees Make Honey?
Bees make honey to heat the hive during the winter, to provide energy for their flight muscles and as protein for their brood, according to the National Honey Board, a non-regulatory board appointed by the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture that supplies research and information. Honey consists of natural sugars and trace enzymes, minerals, vitamins and amino acids. Its color and taste are determined by the blossoms from which it is made.
Best When Not Heated
“Raw” honey is an unofficial term meaning honey that has not been heated or filtered, and therefore, contains trace amounts of pollen. With processed honey, typically found in supermarkets, these traces are removed.
Charles Frederic Andros, owner of Linden Apiaries in Walpole, N.H., is a full-time producer of honey and other bee products, and a keeper of 50 two-queen bee colonies. He is also a former New Hampshire and Vermont apiary inspector. Like many people, Andros admits he puts honey in his tea, but he and other beekeepers stress that it’s not good to heat honey because it kills the nutrients.
“I keep my honey and pollen in freezers. Neither is ever heated to preserve the enzymes and api-therapeutic activity,” Andros says. “All the bee products are immune system stimulators.”
If honey “sugars up,” Clark advises boiling some water in a saucepan then removing the pan from the stove and setting the jar in the hot water until its content is liquefied. Don’t boil the honey directly or boil the water with the jar in it, she says.
Health Benefits of Honey
Aside from making a delicious addition to tea and toast, honey has been prized over the centuries for its healing qualities. Some health-related uses:
• As a natural sweetener, which is one- to one-and-a-half times sweeter than sugar but with about 20 percent less carbohydrates. Andros says it provides a more sustained energy boost than the shorter burst one gets from cane sugar.
• For relief from cold and flu symptoms. Honey is well known as a natural cough suppressant. It also soothes sore throats by coating the throat and reducing irritation. “Take a teaspoon and swallow it slowly,” Clark advises.
Experts warn, though, that honey should never be given to babies under 1, and that raw honey should not be consumed by pregnant women or people with immune deficiencies because of a risk of botulism.
In an article on the Mayo Clinic’s website, James M. Steckelberg, M.D., reports that studies have shown honey is as effective as dextromethorphan, a popular ingredient in over-the-counter cough syrups, in easing a child’s nighttime cough. But he notes that coughs shouldn’t necessarily be suppressed because coughing helps clear mucus from airways.
• As first aid treatment for wounds and burns. Clark mixes honey with aquaphor in equal parts and applies this ointment to a wound before covering it with a bandage. Honey is known to have antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties. Andros notes, “You can actually put honey right onto a burn – the quicker the better. He adds that it’s particularly helpful for soothing sunburn. Many skin care products, such as facials, lotions and shampoos, contain honey for its moisturizing effects.
• As a potential therapy for seasonal allergies. Some people believe that taking a dose of raw honey that’s locally produced works somewhat like an “allergy shot” to boost one’s resistance to seasonal allergies. The key, they say, is finding honey that’s produced in the area where you live, with traces of pollen that are the same pollens giving you trouble.
One new believer in this theory is Frank Yu Chang, a software engineer from Holliston. “I take one to two teaspoons of infused honey with two slices of toast in the morning,” he says. “The main reason is I don’t want to suffer allergy symptoms and the side effects from allergy drugs.” Chang started his regimen in March of last year and continued it for three months. During that time he says he didn’t need any allergy drugs, except for eye drops for itchy eyes, despite having taken allergy medicine previously for 10 years. His “honeyed toast therapy” has worked so well that Chang is doing it again this season and has introduced it to his two teen daughters.
Seasonal Allergy Study
“There are quite a number of people who say that when hay fever starts, they eat local honey and their symptoms back off,” says Eric Mussen, Ph.D., apiculturist at the Entomology Extension at the University of California (U.C.).
In the March/April issue of U.C. Apiaries’ bimonthly newsletter, Mussen writes about a 2013 study conducted by a hospital research team from Malaysia. Forty hay fever sufferers were given 10 mg. of the allergy medicine loratadine each day. Additionally, they were divided into two groups with half receiving a gram of honey (about one-sixth of a pound) split into four equal doses each day and the other half (the control group) being given the same amount of honey-flavored corn syrup. By the fourth week, both groups exhibited progressive improvements in their allergy symptoms, possibly due to the placebo effect, reports Mussen. But over the next four weeks, only the group fed honey demonstrated further improvements. After treatments ended, the participants’ improved state of health persisted for another month.
“This is one of the first studies I have seen that actually demonstrated, in a well-conducted, medically acceptable design, that ingestion of honey containing the right pollen grains or pollen protein extracts can affect allergic responses in humans,” said Mullen in a recent interview.
While supportive of the idea of taking honey to relieve coughs and sore throats, the medical community remains skeptical about raw honey’s effectiveness in combating seasonal allergy symptoms. In fact, several doctors declined to be interviewed for this article, citing a lack of evidence.
“[The theory’s] been kicking around for a long time, but rigorous scientific studies haven’t supported it,” says Andrew Ober, M.D., a board certified allergist with Asthma & Allergy Affiliates in Salem. “It’s very tricky to desensitize people. Dosing is important. Timing is important. There really isn’t that much allergen in honey. … If I had a patient who felt better taking honey, I wouldn’t dissuade them from taking it, but I don’t think in someone who’s still having a problem that it replaces conventional therapies.” For that, Ober recommends over-the-counter antihistamines.
Andros proposes that bee pollen, which he sells and consumes himself, is much more effective than honey for that purpose. But Mussen cautions, “We know that ingesting very much allergen by an allergic person can cause problems. One has to be pretty careful when consuming pollen directly.”
As with all health-related matters, it’s best to consult your physician for sweet and sound advice.
Mary Alice Cookson is associate editor of Boston Parents Paper.
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