Honey: A Source of Nutrition, Medicine and Cash Income for Himalayan Farmers

Introduction
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:

 

  • In most of the remote areas where Apis cerana beekeeping is common, the use of pesticides and chemicals is negligible, the level of dangerous chemicals in the atmosphere is insignificant and the environmental pollution is at minimal level. Further Apis cerana is traditionally kept in fixed comb log and wall hives with zero management. The use of artificial comb foundations, sugar feeding, antibiotics and other drugs does not exist in such hives. Hence the honey produced from such areas is purely natural, free of any residues and can be sold as an organic product.

  • Honey produced specially during spring by Apis laboriosa, the Himalayan rock bee found in mountain districts of Nepal is toxic. These bees collect nectar from the flowers of some plant species like rhododendrons (Rhododendron anthopogon, R. cinnabarinum and R. panticum), bikh (Aconitum spp), pangra (Entada spp), pieris (Pieris formosa), which have intoxicating properties. The toxins present in the nectar of these plant species accumulate in honey and make it toxic to human beings. Intoxicating honey is reddish in colour and has very high medicinal value and relaxing properties. It is sold in a very high price to the Korean market. But when it is consumed directly it results in vomiting and senselessness. Honey hunters can easily detect intoxicating honey by putting a drop of fresh honey in their skin and by observing its colour.
  • Honey produced by Apis dorsata, giant honeybee of the tropics and subtropics has higher amount of enzymes, amino acids and mineral contents than Apis cerana and Apis mellifera honey. Its honey holds higher moisture content and was earlier considered as inferior in quality. But it is gaining more and more popularity in the name of wild jungle honey.
  • Honey produced from dwarf honeybee (Apis florea) and stingless bees (species of Melipona/Trigona) has been used in traditional medicine and is considered superior in quality. The presence of higher amount of glucose oxidase- the enzyme responsible for its antibiotic activity has scientifically proved its medicinal value. However this type of honey is rarely found in the market and used only for medicinal purposes.
  • In the Himalayan region there are many microclimate specific plants, which produce enourmous quantity of nectar for bees, like Chiuri. Honey produced from such plants can be sold as unique product. Specially, Chiuri honey has fine granulation, pleasant taste and sweet aroma and therefore fetches a better price in the Nepali market. This honey is being produced mainly in some patches of low hill areas of west Nepal and Uttaranchal of India.
  • Generally in June and July bees also produce honey from honeydew- an excretion of plant sucking insects deposited on living parts of the plants. Honeydew honey has higher mineral content and more antibiotic activity than nectar honey. Honeydew honey produced from Seabuckthorn, pine, spruce and oak tree has already been reported from many areas of HKH but the ‘niche market’ for such honey is yet to be explored.
  • In Pakistan, honey produced from the nectar of Zizyphus flowers is considered as superior quality and is exported to gulf countries. It is sold at the rate of US$ 20-25/kg, where as the other honeys are sold at US$1-2. Similarly in Nepal, the cold pressed honey from Karnali region is sold at NPR 380/kg while other honeys are sold at NPR 240/Kg.


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"

Further Reading

  • Crane, E. (1980) A book of Honey. Oxford University Press, UK, 193pp.
  • Dustman, J. H. (1993) Honey, Quality and Its Control. In American Bee Journal 648-651.
  • Joshi, S. R. (1999) Physico-chemical and Melissopalynological Characteristics of Nepalese Honey. PhD Thesis, University of Agricultural Sciences, Vienna, Austria.
  • Molan, P. C. (1999) Why Honey is Effective as a Medicine. Its Use in Modern Medicine. In Bee World 80 (2): 80-92.

This article written by Dr. Surendra Raj Joshi of ICIMOD specifically for the Bees website.