Who knows what medicinal secrets lurk in a pot of honey? Scientists in Wales intend finding out and are asking beekeepers throughout the UK to send in their honey for inspection. They’re especially keen to know what plants their bees have been feeding on ” information that could, in time, help to develop new antibacterial drugs .
Researchers at Cardiff University and the National Botanic Garden of Wales (NBGW) plan to construct a detailed profile of the nation’s honey. By analysing each sample, they aim to identify plants that can help to fight antibiotic-resistant bacteria such as MRSA, scourge of many a hospital ward; and also diseases ravaging the bee population.
At the university’s Welsh School of Pharmacy, work has just begun on screening samples of honey collected from different locations across the UK. The first stage is to see if the honey can conquer MRSA and Clostridium difficile. There’s a straightforward test: honey is mixed with the bacteria and if these are killed off by antimicrobial activity within the honey, this indicates the medicinal potential of the bees’ plant food.
The second key piece of work is to identify the plants that show up in the most potent antibacterial honeys. This will be done using a DNA-based identification method developed by the National Botanic Garden.
Long-term, the research aims to point a way towards creating drugs through the plants rather than the honey itself. Les Baillie, professor of microbiology at Cardiff University, sees tackling bugs such as MRSA with new plant-based products as an urgent matter. “We’re running out of ways of treating them,” he says. “We’re living with the legacy of the past ” the inappropriate use of antibiotics through buying them on the internet and using them in animal feed.”
Honey has been used as a medicine since time immemorial, yet the science of its therapeutic properties is little understood. So far, Baillie’s team has acquired more than 50 jars to work on, mainly from supermarkets and Welsh beekeepers, along with a handful from England.
Samples have been passed on to the NBGW. There, plants contained in the most powerful honeys will be identified by a DNA profiling process that has already “barcoded”Wales’s 1,143 species of flowering plants.
The usual pattern of drug development entails an expensive laboratory screening of many plant products, often without success. “We’re hoping to cut out the middle man and let the bees do a lot of the hard work, guiding to us those plants which work,” says Baillie.
Another focus of the research is to try to find honeys with plant constituents that could help bees to resist pests such as the Varroa mite, which has ravaged the UK bee population, and American foulbrood, a destructive infectious disease that attacks bee larvae throughout the world.
“Honey at its most basic is concentrated sugar, but even that can do nasty things to bugs, sucking the water out of them,” says Baillie. Antibacterial activity is linked to factors such as the presence of phytochemicals, which derive from plants visited by bees. These include chemicals that are produced by plants as protection against pathogens (organisms that cause disease). “We hope to identify compounds that will also target pathogens of humans and bees,” says Baillie.
In the past, honey has been used as a medicine on a