In arguably the world’s oldest surviving civilization, India, the medicinal effects of honey have a nearly two thousand years history.

In Ayurvedic medicine, honey is used as a medicine with a multitude of stipulations. Honey from different types of honey bees is listed as having varying medicinal effects.

Primarily, honey can be used for treating wounds and ulcers both internally and externally. Internally, honey can enter minute pores, cleansing and purifying them. This makes it great for healing a coarse voice, blending complexion, and removing bags from the eyes. When eaten, honey improves digestion, bestows intelligence, and even works as an aphrodisiac due to its ability to increase semen fluid.

Likewise, in Western medicine, honey has been traditionally known for its wound healing properties. According to research using modern methodologies, honey’s wound healing may come from its antimicrobial activity, low pH, and high sugar content. Together, these properties prevent the growth of microbes.

Honey is suggested for cough arising from excess mucus and even hiccups. It can also be used for vomiting, dehydration, skin diseases, and diarrhea.

Old Honey And New Honey

In general, honey is seen to be cold, heavy, anti-unctuous, or dry. Astringent honey, although sweet to taste on the tongue, is seen to have a pungent effect on the body after digestion. Old honey, collected at least one year prior to use, is potent in its medicinal qualities.

In Ayurveda, it is seen as one of the front-runners in the treatment of diabetes. Old honey is a powerful scarifacient, employed in removing excess fat, and is also used to induce constipation. New honey can act as a laxative and is seen as nourishing and useful to increase body weight. 

Poisonous Honey

Today, it is a common practice to add a spoonful of honey to tea or other hot beverages. In Ayurvedic medicine, however, it is strictly forbidden for honey to be heated. This includes both direct heat and adding it to anything hot.

According to Ayurvedic texts, honey bees themselves carry poison. In raw forest honey, the multitude of flowers from which the bees collect nectar has various chemicals in them that are also poisonous. Adding more heat to poison can prove to be fatal!

In fact, it is even stipulated that honey should not be consumed by anyone who has a high body temperature. Because of its poisonous nature, using honey as medicine is recommended only in small doses. The only time honey is added in hot decoctions in Ayurvedic treatments is when the procedure requires purgation of the administered medicines.

Honey is used as an adjuvant to medicines. Since it can enter the minutest pores it can take on the properties of herbs and other medicinal products added to it. The addition of honey to medicines boosts the medicine’s potential potentiating and quickening the action of the medicines.

Honey and Honey Bees As Described In Ancient Indian Medical Literature

In the ancient Indian medical texts, such as the circa 2000-year-old Charak Samhita, eight kinds of honeybees are described as producing medicinal honey fit for consumption. These are:

  • Pauttika honey from putika bees, which are large, brownish-yellow colored, and poisonous: The honey from these bees is thick and yellow-brown in color. These bees collect nectar from poisonous flowers and the honey produced is highly intoxicating and acidic. It is very good at scarifying so that fat and tumors are reduced. This honey can help in bleeding disorders. But an adverse effect is that this honey may cause a burning sensation in urine.
  • Bhramara bees make honey that is extremely sweet, slimy, and heavy, appearing like balls. The honey is white in color.
  • Kshaudra bees (Apis florea) are small and reddish-brown in color. Their honey is cool, light, liquefacient of fats, and good for the eyes.
  • Makshika bees are tawny-colored, large bees that produce a very small amount of honey. Their honey is dry and lighter than honey produced by kshaudra bees, and is especially beneficial for dyspnoea or difficulty in breathing.
  • Chattra bees (Apis dorsata) are yellow and build large hives shaped like umbrellas under rock overhangs, in caves, or in large boughs of trees. They are routinely cultivated because of the excellent quality of their honey. Their honey is good for treating diabetes, worm infestations, skin diseases, and hemoptysis.
  • Argha bees make honey called Arghya. The bees are yellow in color, and their proboscis is thin and long. They are found in central India and mostly suck nectar from trees of the genus Madhuka, the fruits of which are fermented to produce a sweet intoxicating drink. The honey produced is reddish-brown and is especially beneficial for eye conditions. This is the only honey that is said to not have any contradictory effects if mixed with hot water.
  • Uddalaka bees make honey called Auddalaka. These bees suck honey out of ant-hills and snake holes to make a golden-colored product that is anti-toxic, improves voice, and is relished as food.
  • Daala bees create honey which looks like sapphires, collecting nectar from droplets on top of leaves and making their hives in trees. The honey is beneficial in vomiting and diabetes.

Indigenous Medical Use Of Honey

Arguably an even older medical knowledge resides orally among the remaining adivasi (indigenous) communities of India. In fact, ancient Ayurvedic texts purport honey bees to be forest animals and refer to forest-dwelling humans as the most knowledgeable about honey and honey bees. This indicates that in ancient India, medical practitioners worked hand-in-hand with indigenous forest honey hunters.

The Paliyans are a pre-Dravidian adivasi group who usually live in isolated villages in the thicket of the Kodaikanal forest, in the southern state of Tamil Nadu. A thousand meters above the extensive paddy fields below, this hunter-gatherer group shares the forest with elephants, leopards, bison, and rare wild dogs. They have maintained a close relationship with their natural environment, using the local flora as well as honey for numerous medicinal purposes.

According to Vaibhav Vaidya, the founder of Malaivalmakkal, a local project that works to promote sustainable forest honey collection in the area, honey is used as a source of food, medicinally and for sacramental purposes. Dammer bees, for example, are hard-to-find stingless bees the size of mosquitoes. Their honey is highly valuable as it is regarded as an effective treatment for sight ailments when applied topically over the eyelids. Little Bee (Apis. floria) and Rock Bee (Apis. dorsata) honey, on the other hand, are traditionally used for their antiseptic properties.

Nutrition And Childcare

In the month of June/July, when the hives are most full of honey, the larvae, known as Rod, are also collected.

Rod is a very important source of protein for people when they travel in the forest. This is the time when honey is mostly harvested. Little Bee larvae are eaten directly. Rock Bee larvae are cooked a bit like eggs and eaten with rice,” says Vaibhav.

After the honey collecting season (June-July), the adivasi store honey with dry Amla (gooseberry). “After they add the Amla the honey absorbs it like resin absorbs water. The dehydrated Amla becomes a very potent immunity booster and also a very strong laxative.”

Furthermore, Little Bee honey is traditionally fed to babies and toddlers. “They say it helps babies speak and prevents children from developing speech problems like stammering,” Vaibhav adds.

Likewise, in Ayurvedic medicine, care of the newborn includes placing honey and ghee (clarified butter) in the mouth of the child. It is seen as an essential step for newborn care.

Honey Concoctions and Blends 

Often honey is mixed with other indigenous plants in the manufacture of local medicines. For instance, it’s reported that young leaves of the Adhatoda vasica Nees plant “are ground and a half glass of the leaf juice is mixed with honey and taken orally as a remedy for cough. It is also a digestive and good for bronchitis.” The powdered root of another creeper plant, Aristolochia indica L, mixed with honey is used to treat leucoderma. A few drops of the leaf latex of Calotrophis gigantea, a severely poisonous shrub used worldwide as an arrow poison, mixed with ten drops of forest honey is used to expel worms.

As with all folk medicines, application, dosage, and even ingredients may differ significantly between communities or villages. They are used as part of a wider knowledge of medicine that takes a lifetime to learn and appreciate.

Lessons From The Past

Across the world, the pharmaceutical industry has benefited significantly from the almost innate knowledge that indigenous communities, who are often the most marginalized people in the world, carry. Today, traditional remedies like honey, are nominally used for non-life-threatening ailments or as health supplements. But even a casual observation demonstrates that ancient medicinal knowledge can be used for serious and chronic illnesses. 

Similarly, Ayurvedic treatment has often taken precedence in curing ailments that Western medicine seems unable to confront, such as various liver conditions (as I can personally testify). Therefore further recognition and honest reflection of the collective knowledge of the world’s oldest people and civilizations, such as in India, is imperative in this time of growing distrust in conventional medicine and what appears to be an acute crisis in the big pharma industry.

Written By Sujata Guha and Lavrenty Repin

Lavrenty is a professional writer with over 10 years of experience living and writing in Namibia, South Africa, India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Russia. Topics of interest include indigenous knowledge (esp. San, Santhal, Munda, Oraon, Hu communities), environmental studies, performance art, and all other art practices, colonial and postcolonial research, rock art, geography/geology, literature, and ancient history in general. B.A (hon.) in English literature, Ancient Indian History and Philosophy (Western and Eastern). He is the Co-founder of HiHiRi PiPiRi NPO, a musician, filmmaker, dog trainer, and extreme hiker. Follow his work at HIJRAH.

Bibliography

  1. Charak Samhita.  The oldest text available on Ayurveda.  Arguably dated  between 4BCE and 2CE
  2. Sushruta Samhita.  The second oldest text of Ayurveda.  
  3. Bhojanakutuhalam.  17th century text on Ayurvedic Foods
  4. Yogaratnakar
  5. TNAU Agritech Portal :: Sustainable Agriculture