Honey: The Sweetest Way to Fight Against Bacteria

The beehive is a work of art, with its intricate honeycomb patterns and is an engineering wonder. Did you know it takes 12 bees their entire life just to make 1 teaspoon of honey? Sounds like a lot of hard work for bees, doesn’t it?

Right now, all of us are fighting an invisible war which is currently causing thousands of casualties, and infecting millions more. These nemeses are so tiny, that they are practically invisible but they are deadly. We call them ‘superbugs’ and they are basically bacteria that have the gift of antibiotic resistance. But, we may have a weapon of our own to stop these superbugs in their tracks i.e honey.


Honey is not just some sticky sweet stuff or a supersaturated sugar solution. It is also a supercharged bacteria-killing powerhouse and finds use since the 19th century as a medicine to treat a wide range of ailments. Now, the reason for its continued use is no doubt that it has potent broad-spectrum antibacterial activity. It is quickly becoming evident that honey has more than just bactericidal properties. Studies show that honey causes an impact on biofilm formation, quorum sensing and the expression of virulence factors. And this is all because it contains healthful polyphenols, or antioxidants, phenolic acids, caffeic acid, p-coumaric acid and ellagic acid, as well as many flavonoids.

The activity of honey that makes it antibacterial come from different factors:

1) It consists mostly of sugar and contains only 17% water. This can dehydrate and dry out the bacteria. In fact, there’s not enough water in honey for microorganisms to live on, so they die and honey doesn’t spoil.

2) When bees make honey, they add in it an enzyme called glucose oxidase which breaks glucose into gluconic acid & hydrogen peroxide

· Gluconic acid gives honey a pH value of less than 4. Most bacteria can’t tolerate a pH value that low.

· Hydrogen peroxide is basically bleach, and it is toxic to bacteria as it destroys the cell walls of bacteria. This causes them to break them apart.

3) Some types of honey have antibiotics in it called Bee Defensin-1. This is a protein which is produced in the same gland that bees use to make honey.

4) Lastly, there is very rare honey which has a special type of activity and this activity is linked to the floral source. The most famous example is Manuka Honey from New Zealand which has an antibacterial compound in it, methylglyoxal. In fact, it’s so good at killing the bacteria that it’s actually used in hospitals.

Jar of honey
A jar of honey

However, all the good things come with drawbacks.

Honey, too has one nemesis. A bacteria, Clostridium botulinum is not affected by it. This is because, they form spores which are very hard to kill. They are also dried out. The really dangerous part of this bacteria is the production of botulinum toxin that they produce when growing into mature bacteria. A dose of less than a 100 nanogram is enough to kill an adult.

About 10% of honey have some botulinum spores present in them. However, since the spores are not fully mature and unable to produce toxins, they are harmless to healthy adults. They may, however, affect the infants under the age of 1. This is because their immune systems are not developed enough. That’s why it is not safe to give honey to infants under 1 year old, but for the rest of us, it is safe for consumption.


Probably the most exciting thing about honey is that even though we have been using it for thousands of years, bacteria have yet to become resistant to it. So, the super-bugs that are resistant to lots of other antibiotics aren’t safe around it. It can wipe these out as if they were normal bugs. With this in mind, honey represents an attractive antimicrobial treatment that might have the potential to be used alongside current therapies as a prophylactic or to treat wound infection with multi-drug-resistant bacteria in future.

So next time whenever you want to eat something sweet then go ahead and enjoy eating some of bacteria’s worst enemy.

Written By,

Riya Bhatia

Student, NIFTEM

If you wish to read about more foods with several nutritional properties, you can check out our article on Sea Buckthorn.

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