Honey Health

A neighbor asked for local honey to treat her allergy so I gave her some from our hives. She wanted a natural alternative to anti-histamines.

South-east Virginia has a miserable reputation for hay fever sufferers, and pollen is suspect as soon as our cars are dusted apple-green from pine trees in early spring. Pollen levels remain high and in the 8 to 9 range throughout the summer because of a succession of grasses flowering after the pine. But some people are symptomatic the year round or mainly in the fall. Pollen sometimes gets the blame for culprits like dust mites, molds and animal scurf. Maybe our neighbor is wasting her time by self-medicating on honey.

But at least the theory of educating her immune system with antigens is sound, and obviously analogous to vaccination. Someone in our family has an allergy to birch pollen and is getting relief from graded doses of the same pollen by subcutaneous shots. Would it work if he took it orally, like her trial with honey? Perhaps!

Time for Medicine

The oral mucosa has a sophisticated immune system with Langerhans cells and patrolling dendritic cells involved in tolerance. A defense system is needed in the mouth because food and drink are not necessarily sterile until they are mixed with stomach acid. If honey lingers under the tongue before it is swallowed there may be time for its cargo of antigens to be presented to these cells. Whether pollen creates an immune response during passage through the gut is more dubious, because it encounters there a fury of enzymes, although pollen grains have been found in the evacuated products at the rear end. Ahem.

Since I was both ill-equipped and disinclined to test that theory, I decided to ask a more practicable question. Is there any pollen in our honey? I dusted off a microscope to focus on a glass slide where I smeared a sample.

Aha! I saw several types of grain. They were clear or dark spheres ranging in size from about 0.01 to 0.1 mm, but I had no idea what trees or herbs they came from. And I wondered if they were sufficiently abundant to alert the immune system, but that wasn’t the most serious doubt.

When a hay fever sufferer is tested for hypersensitivity, trees and grasses are top of the pollen list. Note: they are wind-pollinated species. I can’t discount them in our honey, but if any of their pollen is present it is an “accidental” minority because bees don’t visit those species. Insect-pollinated flowers rarely cause hay fever, but it is their pollen grains that rub off bees when depositing nectar in the comb to make honey. I haven’t expressed these doubts to my neighbor since there’s a chance that she will feel better from the placebo effect!

Honey has an ancient and honorable history in medicine: it was used to dress wounds and made foul tonics and potions palatable. Moreover, it doesn’t need refrigeration because it has natural antiseptic properties. The concentration of sugars is so high that bugs are dehydrated by osmosis, and without water there can be no life.  Archaeologists have even found edible honey in Egyptian tombs thousands of years old. One of the oldest elixirs, it is still useful.

I tested honey as an antiseptic barrier on a skin wound. Easy to apply and always in the pantry, I was excited when it seemed to be working – until my dog licked it off. She knows its other virtues.

Next Post: Notes from the hive

Virginia Nature Journal for June

“Hey, look!” I exclaimed as a man rolled down a window of the truck he drove into our yard this morning. I think my hand was shaking as I pointed at a flower bed. “Over there! It’s our first monarch butterfly of the year. They’re rare now.”

A large butterfly fluttered around for a food plant. Its wings looked like a hinged pair of stained glass windows made of amber inside cames of black lead.  They dazzled me. And then I pondered the mystery of generations that make the long migration possible and the thousands of miles for the return journey in September. They astounded me.

“Where’s your broken pane?” the man asked. “You still want it fixed?” I guess he thought I was wasting time on a stupid butterfly. It’s harder to convert someone to care for nature when there’s business to be done.

Monarch butterfly
Making new monarchs

Neighbors told us that monarchs were common twenty years ago, but now we only catch sight of them a dozen times in a whole summer. The numbers are down by 90% in Virginia as well as elsewhere. Perhaps you have to live long enough to notice a difference, and that’s why it’s important to help children to care.

The fading of monarchs from the landscape has prompted lots of speculation. Is it climate change, or logging in their mountain fastness where they overwinter in Mexico, or pesticide exposure during their peregrinations, or food shortages as they traverse swathes of monoculture crops? Perhaps a little of all of them, but entomologists think the disappearance of the food plant for their caterpillars is the main reason. They only eat certain types of milkweed.

Milkweed species used to be ubiquitous, but intensive farming and mowing of fields and highway verges is stripping them across their range. Part of the problem is that we are less tolerant of “wastelands” and “weeds.” A little more “untidiness” might help them and the critters depending on them. Any creature like a monarch that depends on a single food source is more vulnerable than a less fussy eater.

It made evolutionary sense when the first monarchs laid eggs on milkweed. The plant is named for its milky sap which contains alkaloids that Native Americans used as folk remedies, and the scientific name for the genus is taken from the Greek god of healing (Asclepias). Since the alkaloids are distasteful to most birds, the caterpillars and the adult butterflies had an advantage, and prospered as long as milkweed was abundant.

There is a silver lining to this gloomy story. While agriculture and urban development are squeezing out milkweed, countless people across the country are running to save it.

The Internet is full of appeals by milkweed activists and ads from seed merchants. Some vendors even offer free milkweed seeds, bless their hearts. The US Fish and Wildlife Service are sufficiently concerned that grants are offered to help save the butterfly. And in our own county master naturalists are planting it in school gardens or rearing butterflies indoors or tagging them so researchers tracing their migration can discover the most vulnerable stages of their migration.

Swamp milkweed seedlings

Even tiny efforts can feel worthwhile when they are part of a larger endeavor. I bought swamp milkweed seeds in March. After germinating in trays of potting soil I planted them out, and they are now over a foot tall in damp corners around the yard. Perhaps the colorful visitor I had today has already found them and laid its eggs under the leaves. And maybe in a couple of weeks they will grow into a bunch of fat caterpillars with black, yellow and white stripes like pajamas. Of all the critters that feast on our vegetation, they are most welcome.

Red admiral butterfly
My red admiral friend. Photo: Judy Jones

Butterflies are wonderful ambassadors for nature, and monarchs are as fine symbols for conservation as giant pandas. I never heard anyone say they disliked them, except perhaps a gardener moaning about cabbage white butterflies on his brassicas. Butterflies are almost entirely harmless, and exquisitely beautiful. You can even make a friend of one if you hold out a finger very gently to offer salt in your pores.

Next Post: Honey for Health?





Milton’s Mulberry Tree

According to tradition, a mulberry tree was planted at Christ’s College in Cambridge the same year that John Milton was born (1608). The tree shaded the poet when he went up to university as an undergraduate, and survives in what is now the Fellow’s Garden.

I never visited the garden when I lived in Cambridge. At busy times in life, and in cities that offer much, it is easy to postpone the sights, but we move away before tomorrow arrives. So while I was staying in college last week, I took the opportunity to see the famous tree.

It is now a sprawling mass of shoots rising little more than fifteen feet. The trunk rotted away long ago and horizontal branches are propped up like the arms of old men leaning on canes. A less venerable tree would have been axed long ago to make way for a pretty flower bed.

Even in Victorian times when the tree was barely two centuries old there were worries that it would not last much longer. “Time’s effacing finger must at no distant season sweep it entirely away from its much honoured site. Serious apprehension is entertained of the tree not being able to survive through another winter” (Eliza Cook’s Journal, 1854).  But if you look closely, its shoots are still vigorous, foliage is free of disease, and there is a crop of fruit for another batch of mulberry jam. When trees grow old, they can still thrust up arms of youthful vigor.

Perhaps resveratrol flowing in its veins helped to preserve the tree. But no matter its age, if shoots are still healthy there are germs of longevity in their tips. They contain meristems like stem cells derived from animal embryos which can recreate a whole organism (think of clones or Adam’s rib). Most gardeners take the regenerative power for granted, but when I take cuttings to make a new rose I think of embryology. In 2008, on the four hundredth anniversary of Milton’s mulberry tree, shoots from the old stock were planted in Wales for the Hay Literary Festival.

Who dares to guess how long they will thrive there? The indefinite longevity of plants is a marvel denied to mortals. Perhaps Charles Darwin pondered the difference after seeing the mulberry tree when he was admitted to the college in 1827.

Five years after going down from college in 1632, Milton was contemplating the premature demise of Edward King in a shipwreck. He composed an elegy for his college chum, which ascends from pastoral life to a resurrected plain that an immortal mulberry tree has no need of.Lycidas

Next Post: Virginia Nature Journal for June