Honey is the most important bee products both from a quantitative and an economic point of view. It is highly nutritious and medicinal food, with especially high value in the Himalayan region, where sugar cannot be produced and medical facilities are not available. In many communities it also has religious significance and is needed for almost all spiritual rituals and rites of passage. The FAO Codex Alimentarius Commission defines honey as ‘the natural sweet substance produced by honeybees from the nectar of flowers or from secretions coming from living organisms feeding on plants, that bees gather, transform and combine with specific ingredients, store and leave to ripen in the combs of the hive.
The major components of honey are sugars, which include fructose, glucose, sucrose, maltose and other di- and trisaccharide sugars. Besides sugars, honey contains a wide variety of chemical components such as proteins, fats, vitamins, minerals, enzymes, amino acids, volatile aromatic substances, etc. The diverse nature of these ingredients means that honey is not just a simple sweetener, but a nutritionally worthwhile product.
Some Specialties of Himalayan Honey
In the Himalayan region, due to richness in bee flora there is a great diversity in honey types. Honey produced from each plant species and from each geographical area has its own colour, flavour, aroma, texture and medicinal properties. Some specialties of Himalayan bee honey are given below:
Honey Harvesting and Processing
Cutting of comb and squeezing honey by hands is the most common method of extracting honey from the traditional fixed comb hives in the Himalayan region. It is in most cases packaged in pre-used utensils of alcoholic drinks, cooking oils, kerosene etc. This deteriorates its quality and detracts the consumers. Such honey is sold at lower price than extracted honey packaged in plastic or glass jars. However, squeezed honey if harvested in a clean hygienic way and packaged in air tight glass or plastic bottles would be of very high quality. It has been reported that honey stored, processed and sealed by bees in the cells of comb is always of good quality. But, the different management methods and techniques of honey harvesting, processing and storage greatly influence the quality and marketing of the honey. Keeping this in view, ICIMOD’s beekeeping project has been trying to improve the honey harvesting and processing techniques. The project discourages beekeepers to boil their honey and teaches them how to maintain quality of honey using low cost simple techniques.
Marketing of cut comb honey offers great opportunity for the Himalayan farmers in selling honey at higher price. This practice has already been started in few trekking areas of Nepal but due to lack of appropriate packing materials and transportation facility it is not becoming as popular as it should be. This potential can be materialized to benefit local farmers if appropriate packing materials can be made available and at the same time physical infrastructure is improved. Since the honey in the comb is untouched and is readily seen to be pure, honey presented in this way fetches a good price. For example ICIMOD's beekeeping project was able to sell a comb of Apis cerana honey at the rate of Rs 700.
Uses of Honey
Honey occupies an honoured place in the minds of men and sacred status in the Ancient World. Honey has religious values, is a healthy food and also has medicinal uses. In Hinduism, it is considered as one of the five components of Panchamrit ‘the nectar of immortality’ and used in many religious ceremonies.
Honey is used as nourishing health food in varied forms and said to facilitate better physical performance. It provides energy as much as 3.5 kilo-cal/kg and requires no digestion, but only a slight digestive action. Honey can be consumed directly or used in cakes, pastries, candies, chewing gum, toffees, etc. In many areas of the Himalayan region where sugar is not easily available honey is used as a substitute of sugar. It is also used as an energy food in preparing special dishes like pan-cake, laddu, sel roti and so on. These dishes are prepared for special ceremonies for example wedding and rice feeding ceremony of babies.
Medicinal Uses of Honey
Honey has been used as medicine for thousands of years. Ayurvedic system of medicine uses honey as a major ingredient for the preparation of tonics, vitamines and herbal medicines. It is used almost in all Ayurvedic medicines as an essential ingredient for making them palatable. In more recent years it has been scientifically proved that honey is very effective in rapidly cleaning up infection and promoting healing. It increases appetite, helps to control gastritis and can also give relief to allergies, sinus, arthritis and asthma. It is therefore considered as one of the most effective and inexpensive home remedies. As an antibiotic or antibacterial substance it is found very effective for the treatment of ulcers and bad sores and other surface infections resulting from burns and wounds. A team of researchers from New Zealand suggested that the antibacterial activity of honey is partially due to its osmotic effects, low pH and inhibine properties (Molan, 1999).
A quotation from National Honey Board, USA goes like this:
"Nothing can match the comforting sweetness and classic taste of honey. Used through out the centuries, mankind’s oldest sweetner turns everything it touches into something special"
This article written by Dr. Surendra Raj Joshi of ICIMOD specifically for the Bees website.