World’s sweetest antibiotic? The five ways honey kills bacteria.

Written by: Captain Skellett // July 13th, 2010 // Drugs, How Things Work, Recent Research, Science at Home

HoneyYou’re at the doctors with a suspected infection, but instead of offering penicillin or erythromycin, they prescribe honey. Would you switch toast toppings? Take a honey pill? How about letting the doctor smear medical grade honey over the infected area?

People have been using honey (not mad honey) as medicine since ancient times, but until now we have never fully understood how it works. Research lead by Dr. Paulus Kwakman from the University of Amsterdam and his team have finally identified the key elements which give honey its antibacterial activity.

Bacteria are becoming resistant to drugs faster than we’re developing them. Honey might help because it works when other drugs don’t. Studies show it has good activity in vitro against antibiotic-resistant bacteria. An older study reports successful treatment of a chronic wound infections not responding to normal medicine.

So how does it work? It’s a combination of five factors.

1. Hydrogen peroxide, a kind of bleach. The honey enzyme called glucose oxidase makes hydrogen peroxide when honey is diluted with water. We clean toilets with bleach, and it’s pretty good at killing bacteria.

2. Sugar. Honey has so much sugar there’s hardly any water for bacteria to grow in.

3. Methylglyoxal (MGO), an antibacterial compound found in New Zealand Manuka honey a couple of years ago. It’s also found in medical grade honey which is made in controlled greenhouses, albeit in smaller amounts.

4. Bee defensin 1, a protein found in royal jelly (special food for queen bee larva.) This report is the first time bee defensin 1 has been identified in honey, and it works as an antibiotic.

5. Acid. Diluted honey has a pH of around 3.5, the acidic environment slows down bacterial growth.

These five things work together to provide a broad spectrum activity against bacteria. For example, S. aureus is vulnerable hydrogen peroxide, while B. subtillis is challenged only if MGO and bee defensin 1 are working simultaneously. Honey has the right mix for maximum destruction.

So that’s how bees keep their honey fresh and unspoiled by bacterial growth. Perhaps with this information we’ll create enhanced honey to guard against infection, improving on nature like we did with penicillin. Until then, I know what I’m having on my toast.

A Schooner of Science could be named Australia’s best science blog. If you enjoyed reading, please vote for me.

ResearchBlogging.orgKwakman, P., te Velde, A., de Boer, L., Speijer, D., Vandenbroucke-Grauls, C., & Zaat, S. (2010). How honey kills bacteria The FASEB Journal, 24 (7), 2576-2582 DOI: 10.1096/fj.09-150789

Captain Skellett

I be Captain Skellett. Me blog started in April 2009 when I was working full time and didn’t get a chance to talk science. Now I have changed jobs and talk science all the time, but that doesn’t stop me blogging. More About Captain Skellett   Google


5 Responses to “World’s sweetest antibiotic? The five ways honey kills bacteria.”

  1. Lab Rat says:

    First of all congrats for the nomination! (I voted :p ). I always get made honey and ginger drinks when I have a cold, even by doctor-friends. The honey might not affect the cold-virus, but apparently it helps to sooth your throat and prevent opportunistic bacteria colonizing the inflamed area. It was interesting to see some more scientific evidence for the usefulness of honey.

  2. Brent says:

    Of those 5 factors, the most important by a long way is Methylglyoxal. Hydrogen peroxide is quickly broken down by body enzymes. Experiments have found sugar syrup ineffective by comparison.
    Prof Thomas Henle, Institute of Food Chemistry, Technical University of Dresden, “unambiguously demonstrates for the first time that Methylglyoxal is directly responsible for the antibacterial activity of Manuka honey.”
    Check out
    And by the way, only one company certifies the level of Methylglyoxal in its manuka honey – Manuka Health New Zealand (see

  3. James says:

    I just came back recently from the Australian Society for Microbiology’s conference and there was a lecture on honey as an anti-biotic. The other apparent activity is that honey appears to be able to break up medically relevant biofilms! Having said this my wife is a nurse and has not seen honey based treatments work with any extra efficacy than more conventional treatments herself. Interesting stuff anyway.

  4. […] proof of the power of honey. I won’t go into the specifics of it here (but you can find out more here) but honey is made up of a large number of chemicals and many of them are bio-active and […]

  5. Daniel Fierro says:

    Who needs science anyway, this 21st obsession with all things scientific just shows how narrow focused we have become, in not understanding nature.

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