As noted in religious texts, ancient manuscripts and even stone-age carvings, honey has been regarded as a miracle cure throughout history.
It has been an essential ingredient for many civilisations, including from the Sumerians to the Greek, Roman and Chinese empires – where myths of honey concoctions granting immortality were born. In ancient Egypt, honey was sought for its beautifying properties and used by one of the country’s most famous leaders, Queen Cleopatra.
Thousands of years later, demand for honey – as a curative, natural sweetener, beauty aid and antibacterial agent – continues to rise. There is a production boom in eastern Kazakhstan, for example, and rising demand for honey produced in Qatar, which has an ongoing “honey bee project” launched by the government to support farmers and promote production.
In the UAE, the country’s first Honey Festival, organised by Dubai Municipality, will take place at Hatta Heritage Village from Wednesday to Saturday. Beekeepers will be showcasing different varieties of natural honey products made in UAE and wider region. The festival will include events such as tent shopping, lectures and scientific sessions focusing on the qualities and uses of honey.
In the West, there is a big push for Manuka honey, which claims to be a more powerful healing agent than the regular variety – perhaps even against antibiotic-resistant superbugs. As evidence of its popularity, Kourtney Kardashian was hired last year as global skincare ambassador for the Manuka Doctor honey brand.
All this is happening as global honey bee populations continue to decline, a phenomenon attributed to a variety of factors.
There are hundreds of types of honey, and its production remains one of the world’s biggest industries.
Certain types are marketed with bold claims that they can cure a wide range of ailments, from depression to flu – even cancer.
In a country particularly renowned for its honey, Yemenis insist this is all true – and more. “It can even help your marriage,” says Ayman Alnahmy, a Yemeni honey salesman with a long family history in the trade.
“This special mix for married people helps them become, well, more amorous, and I have had couples come back and tell me they are now expecting a child after many years of trying,” says Alnahmy, the 30-year-old manager at Global Village’s Yemeni Honey World stall.
This married-couples concoction also contains almonds and pistachio, black cumin, ginseng, special herbs and royal jelly, which is secreted by worker bees to feed the queen. It costs Dh400 a kilogram and is one of the more attention-grabbing varieties on display.
Stepping into the Yemeni section of Global Village in Dubai is an overwhelming experience, as sellers accost visitors with samples of honey and their reputed health benefits. There are varieties for athletes, children and diabetics. Even students have a special “genius honey”, which promises to increase memory.
The “bee’s poison” (venom) is also marketed as an ointment for joints and to ease headaches and cramps. There are also honey soaps, creams and hair products.
Other honey-based products claim to help achieve “whitening of the skin”, wrinkle reduction and pigment correction, while there are special mixes that can make women “more plump” or thinner. The colour and flavour of honey varieties differ depending on the plants visited by the honey bees as a source of nectar. But even honey derived from the same flowers in the same location can vary in taste, depending on temperature and rainfall.
Lighter-coloured tends to be milder tasting, while dark honey is stronger.
Some honey types are highly prized and viewed as “sacred”, including those coming from the Al Sidr tree, as it is mentioned in the Quran as one of the plants found in paradise.
Al Samr and Al Sidr honey. Antonie Robertson / The National
Al Sidr honey costs from Dh500 to more than Dh1,500 a kilo, depending on where it was collected and whether it is wild or cultivated. The honey is said to help with overall immunity, colon and stomach-related issues, and even to ease labour pains. Its purest form is also said to be good for diabetics, and even for helping to treat cancer.
“It is up to you to believe or not in the power of honey,” says Alnahmy, who says he is rarely ill and has not had a cold in years thanks to his honey mixes. “But the fact that Prophet Mohammed used it, and my great-great-great grandparents swore by it, and today we still use it and see its healing effects – we cannot easily dismiss its healing effects.”
Because of the conflict in Yemen, it can take a month or more to transport honey from there, when in previous years it took two days. Prices have increased as a result, from about Dh100 per kilo to Dh200 or more.
At this time of year, when cooler weather brings greater susceptibility to colds and flu, Yemeni honey sellers recommend the Al Samr variety: a darker, brown honey that purportedly helps with coughs, sneezing and sinus-related ailments, as well as boosting immunity and improving blood circulation. It costs between Dh200 and Dh400 a kilogram, depending on the quality and mix one needs.
According to a study published in the Scientific World Journal in 2011, honey is also effective in healing and sterilisation, including skin wounds, gastric ulcers and burns.
Some, like Manuka, have unique antibacterial properties. It is produced by honey bees that feed on the Manuka bush (Leptospermum scoparium), which grows in New Zealand and south-eastern Australia.
A study in 2013, conducted by a team from UAE University in Al Ain and published in the scientific journal Plos One, found Manuka honey effectively inhibited the growth of cancerous tumours in the breast, skin and colon. It might also reduce the toxic side effects of chemotherapy, the scientists found.
Although Manuka honey has recently had a big push for its healing properties, experts say they do not vary much between all the types on the market. The level of purity is the key – processing it with high-fructose corn syrup, for example, eliminates the health benefits found in the raw variety.
“It is part of marketing to promote some honey types over others,” says food nutritionist Mashael Al Ameri. “Essentially most have the same nutrients and [it] depends on how pure they are. The thicker ones have less water content and hence have higher quality.”
So why does honey offer these reputed healing properties? It contains more than 180 nutrients, including proteins, enzymes, vitamins and minerals such as B12, calcium, sodium, phosphorus, manganese and fluoride. It is also known to be rich in both enzymatic and non-enzymatic antioxidants, including catalase, ascorbic acid, flavonoids and alkaloids.
Emirati food nutritionist Mashael Al Ameri at the Al Sawari honey shop in Abu Dhabi. Vidhyaa for The National
“Honey has an ability to kill or inhibit the growth of a wide range of bacterial and fungal species, due to its low pH [numeric scale] levels,” says Al Ameri. “Its pH is three or four, where bacteria cannot survive in pH level lower than four.”
A study published in 2010 in The African Journal of Traditional, Complementary and Alternative Medicines addressed the role of honey and its polyphenols in preventing heart disease. It found honey helps slow the oxidation of low-density lipoprotein cholesterol – the "bad" variety that is responsible for causing arteriosclerosis (hardening of the arteries). It also contains a variety of antioxidants, which help reduce blood pressure – buckwheat honey contains the highest amounts, followed by clove, and acacia honey has the least.
Honey was also shown to reduce coughs and improve sleep by a 2007 study, published in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine. Researchers found that a small dose of buckwheat honey before bedtime provided better relief of coughs and sleep difficulty in children than dextromethorphan, a cough-suppressant found in many over-the-counter medicines. "Raw honey possesses nootropic effects, such as memory-enhancing effects," according to another study, published in 2014 in the Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine Journal, exploring neurological effects.
What about the many beauty-related claims? According to the National Honey Board, it is a humectant, which means it attracts and retains moisture. This makes honey a natural fit for moisturising products, including cleansers, creams, shampoos and conditioners.
It is also a good source of energy.
“Because honey contains fructose and glucose, it is easily digested and goes directly into the blood and energises the body,” says Al Ameri. While modern medicine may not attribute as many benefits to honey as traditional medicine, 70-year-old Umm Ahmed from Dubai puts her “eternal youth” down to honey.
“I have been eating Yemeni Sidr honey every morning on an empty stomach since I was 20, and look at me – I am healthier than my own children,” says the mother of five, who is shopping for honey at Global Village. After trying samples from a few jars, she picks the thickest, most expensive Sidr honey, the “royal” one, paying more than Dh1,500 for a kilo. “I trust in honey,” she says. “It has never let me down.”
Popular varieties from the UAE
Mohammed Al Nuaimi, who runs the Al Sawari honey shop in Abu Dhabi. Vidhyaa for The National
While Yemeni honey is still the most sought-after in the region, do not overlook UAE varieties.
“There are few cases of independent Emirati honey collectors, and mostly you find them in festivals and souqs,” says Mohammed Al Nuaimi, an Emirati who runs the Al Sawari shop for honey and traditional herbs in Khalidiya, Abu Dhabi.
He sells several varieties, including: Al Qers honeycomb, from Ras Al Khaimah (Dh300 a kilogram); Al Samr, which is collected in RAK and Abu Dhabi (Dh550 a kg); and the famous Sidr honey (Dh200) from the outskirts of Abu Dhabi, including Shahama and along the road to Al Ain.
“Al Samr is more popular and is known among the locals as the one that really helps boost the immune system in general, and so that is why it is more expensive,” says 35-year-old Al Nuaimi, who takes a spoonful of Al Samr honey mixed with warm water every morning on an empty stomach.
“Honey has always been around in the UAE and other parts of Arabia. It was collected by the different tribes, from the mountainous honey, to those from caves to those gathered in the valley and there is even honey from the desert,” he says.
“It is all about the flowers. If there are flowers, bees will find them and make for us different-tasting honey.”
Manuka honey, which is quite popular in the West. Rich-Joseph Facun / The National
Entering a honey shop can be intimidating with many varieties that look much the same.
When choosing, check first that the honey is not too runny – an indication that it might have been watered down.
Go for organic and raw, avoiding processed variety.
The best way to find the honey that is best for your tastes is to try a few samples, which is one of the great benefits of open stalls such as the Yemeni Honey World at Global Village.
Honey shops at malls these days also offer samples, though, particularly of Yemeni and Arab varieties. Check out Balqees Honey and Blossom and Bloom stores as a starting point.
Bee population coming down
The effect of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) – a phenomenon when the majority of worker bees disappear from the colony and leave behind a queen with few nurse bees – has been worsened by other factors, including war and the lack of scientific data.
“The issue has become more puzzling in the developing countries, with war-hit zones adding obscurity to the findings due to the enormous emissions of explosives that not only tend to mask the real possible causes of the disorder but create a further deterioration to the already shaky ecosystems,” says author and professor Rami Ollaik. He teaches beekeeping at the American University of Beirut and comes from a family with a long tradition in the practice.
Also a lawyer and political activist, he wrote with his father, Salman, Your Guide to Beekeeping, the first scientific Arabic book on the subject published in Lebanon.
As part of the research he conducts across the region, he was due to launch a project on regulating beekeeping and honey production in UAE. However, that has been put on hold.
Disease, parasites, habitat destruction and CCD have all been reducing the bee population in recent years, and these are issues particularly difficult to track and measure in the Middle East.
“The main problem in developing nations, including those of the region and especially those in conflict, is the lack of reliable data, if present at all,” he says.
CCD is seen as a sign of environmental deterioration, with suggested underlying causes including climate change, increased pest infestation and a rise in the use of pesticides in farming. The honey bee is viewed as “nature’s messenger” of the bad news, says Ollaik.
That is why it is crucial to conduct proper scientific studies on bees regionally, he adds, to better understand what has gone wrong with the ecosystem and develop better farming practices.
“The lack of reliable data in the Arab region makes the problems associated with CCD in the region even more severe and harder to track,” he says.