In ancient times, humans harvested honey for its medicinal properties. Civilizations such as the Babylonians, Egyptians, Greeks and Romans used honey as a healing agent for wounds and to treat eye and gastrointestinal diseases.
Today, honey is not prominent in modern medicine. Yet, because honey has a high level of bioactivity, scientists continue to examine its potential as a complementary therapeutic agent.
In Spring 2018, Alma College students analyzed the medicinal properties of honey in a course taught by visiting professor Ferhat Ozturk, former director of the Honey Research Center at Canik Basari University in Turkey.
“Honey is a valuable therapeutic agent of complementary medicine,” says Ozturk. “Beyond killing pathogenic bacteria, honey is useful as an antidiabetic, anti-inflammatory and antiviral substance. Other scientists have begun researching its use as an anti-cancer drug as well.”
Honey is broadly composed of sugars, water, amino acids, vitamins, minerals, enzymes, phenolic acids and flavonoids — about 200 chemical compounds in all.
“While the exact role of each of the molecules present in honey is unknown, a sort of synergy between molecules is believed to exist,” says Ferhat. “I’m interested in identifying something from traditional medicine to benefit modern medicine. This is especially important as antibiotics lose their bioactivity potential due to increasingly resistant bacteria.”
During the Spring Term class, Ozturk and his students analyzed the bioactivity potentials of honey collected in different seasons from different regions and forages of Michigan.
The term bioactivity refers to how active honey is within a cell to treat wounds, boost immunity, aid the gastrointestinal tract or support the microbiome of an organism. Major measurements of bioactivity include antioxidant, antimicrobial and peroxidase activity.
“We analyzed 150 or so honey samples,” he says. “By focusing on those with higher bioactivity levels, we hoped to expose the bioactivity potential of Michigan honey and perhaps uncover honeys that might be considered medical grade.”
Students spent the first week traveling throughout Michigan to learn about honeybees, visiting apiaries in Kalamazoo, research labs in Lansing and a commercial honey packing company in Saginaw. They studied bee biology, hive care and the risks and benefits of beekeeping. They also experienced hands-on training in hive splitting, bee box installation and queen monitoring.
The second portion of the course was spent in the lab. Methods such as spectrophotometric analysis, microplate reading, bacteria culture, well plate analysis and melissopalynology — the study of pollen contained in honey — assays were carried out in exploring each sample’s bioactivity level.
“I was excited to offer this course,” says Ozturk. “This was not only a class but a real-life application of students’ knowledge in an environment that some may one day work in as researchers.”