It’s hard to know if our ancestors wanted to treat their wounded or season them in the hope that a hungry bear might take them off their hands. Amongst various cultures throughout history, honey has been slathered over skin lesions and lacerationsto reduce the risk of infection and increase the rate of healing. In recent years good evidence has been put forward in the form of case studies that indicates this sweet bee vomit assists makes for a good wound dressing, helping in the healing process. Now some Dutch scientists have isolated the compound that could be primarily responsible.
Honey is nectar that bees have sucked up out of flowers as payment to do the dirty deed for them, and regurgitated out of a special stomach several times until it’s partially digested. It’s then spat into wax cells where they fan it with their wings until a large amount of the water evaporates. If they didn’t do this, they’d risk letting the yeast and other baddies grow, fermenting the honey and turning the hive into a massive rave. More or less.
The high sugar levels alone limit pathogen growth simply on account of sucking the water out of them and desiccating their microscopic bodies. To work out if there was something else going on, the researchers had to isolate and reduce the antibacterial properties they already knew about and test what was left. They discovered the mixture contained ‘defensin-1’; a protein that forms a key part of the bee’s immune system. The strength of this factor alone appears to account for most of the honey’s antibacterial properties.
So, let’s raise a toast of mead to the Dutch scientists who had the tenacity to dig through that bee chunder in search of evidence showing whether the Egyptians were truly onto something with their badger-bait bandages. Sweet, sweet science!