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bee well ... herbs, honey, health & wholeness

While I'm an herbalist, it certainly doesn't mean I only use plants.  I freely and happily use many things that aren't in themselves plant material, from bone broths to provide deep nourishment to lanolin in salve making.  And of course, I use honey, which is, I deem, an absolutely fascinating substance.

Honey is created by bees from flower nectar, and the quality of the honey produced is indeed influenced by the flowers it is made from.  While there are many specialty honeys with flavors ranging from delicate to bold, I generally prefer to use local wildflower honey.  Part of the reason for this is that I rather like our local wildflowers, and therefore feel more connected to the honey I'm using, but another consideration is that any honey said to be derived from a single source (whether that be clover or buckwheat or orange blossom) necessarily needs to have been created by bees living in a monoculture planting of that crop.  Monocultures usually require intense agricultural spraying to be grow, and so that would mean that the bees are harvesting nectar from sprayed flowers.  This is far from ideal.  "Wildflower" honey, on the other hand, means that the bees are just going out and doing their thing, collecting nectar from a diverse array of local flowering plants and trees.  That certainly sounds preferable, eh?

Occasionally, I have heard honey referred to as an "animal by-product"; some vegetarians/vegans don't use it for these reasons.  I don’t know that this descriptor works for me.  What I feel is that honey, in and of itself, is a herbal preparation made by bees, whom I consider fellow herbalists.  Its virtues astound, being both food and medicine, and can be applied in innumerable and myriad ways.  Here then, are some of the ways in which I've made use of it...

honey as nourishment...

Honey is an important food source, but one whose nature cannot be done justice with a quantitative rundown of its constituents.  Indeed, it’s mostly comprised of sugars; almost 80%, with the brunt of those being fructose and sucrose.  For this reason, I have heard it stated by some that “honey really isn't so much different than white sugar”.  But a spoonful of either can show us in a qualitative manner (in both the taste and how it leaves us feeling) than the two aren't so comparable.  For one, honey is about the only unprocessed sugar we have access to.  Other natural sweeteners are to a greater (sugar cane) or lesser (maple syrup) degree processed.  The increasingly popular agave nectar is highly processed, often with a number of chemical solvents, and although it’s low on the glycemic index - much lower than honey - its incredibly high concentration of fructose just might merit concern... the only substance with a comparable ratio of fructose to sucrose is high fructose corn syrup.  Is agave nectar really comparable to that?  I'm not sure; but the thing is that nobody's sure, whatever their marketing hype may say.

Looking beyond sugars, honey possesses an immense diversity of ingredients.  Stephen Buhner shares that "Honey contains (among other things) a complex assortment of enzymes, organic acids, esters, antibiotic agents, trace minerals, proteins, carbohydrates, hormones, and antimicrobial compounds. One pound of the average honey contains 1333 calories (compared with white sugar at 1748 calories), 1.4 grams of protein, 23 milligrams of calcium, 73 milligrams of phosphorus, 4.1 milligrams of iron, 1 milligram of niacin, and 16 milligrams of vitamin C, and vitamin A, beta carotene, the complete complex of B vitamins, vitamin D, vitamin E, vitamin K, magnesium, sulfur, chlorine, potassium, iodine, sodium, copper, manganese, high concentrations of hydrogen peroxide, and formic acid... and the list goes on. Honey contains more than 75 different compounds! Many of the remaining substances in honey are so complex (4-7 percent of the honey) that they have yet to be identified."

Honey, in and of itself, is antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, antiallergenic, blood building and expectorant.  Even a 5% solution of honey water is very effective in treating the helicobacter pylori bacteria associated with stomach ulceration..

honey for topical use...

Perhaps one of the most important and oft overlooked uses of honey in healing is its immensely beneficial action as a topical wound dressing.  While the thought of applying honey straight from the jar over an infected wound seems entirely unsanitary, both traditional and recent medical usage suggests otherwise.  In fact, the honey used in most of the clinical trials on sores and infections wasn't even sterilized.

You see, honey in very antiseptic in action.  It has been used throughout history to treat infected sores, severe burns and wounds of all kinds.  Honey not only exerts a strong and profound antimicrobial action (being active even against antibiotic resistant staph infections/MRSA), but also actively promotes healing of tissues.  The exact mode of action is unclear; the acidity of honey, its hygroscopic nature (meaning it sucks the water out of things, including bacteria), an enzyme that releases hydrogen peroxide... all these and more actions likely add up to a sum greater than their individual parts.  Honey as a dressing also doesn't reinjure the wound when bandages are changed - another factor that facilitates faster healing.

This overview offered by Dr. L. B. Grotte does an absolutely excellent job covering its topical usage, honoring both traditional wisdom and clinical evidence, and describing specifically how the honey applications are prepared and applied: www.drgrotte.com/honey-medicine.shtml

honey in herbal preparations...

Honey has also long been an invaluable vehicle for delivering herbs, in many varying forms.  I often rely on it in making syrups, honey pastes & lozenges....



In simple terms, a syrup is most often a strong infusion or decoction of one or several herbs or, in the case of berries, their juice, mixed with honey into a sweet, thick liquid.  The honey not only contributes to the syrup’s flavor and consistency, but also offers its own virtues, being nutritious, immune stimulating, antiseptic and moistening to lung tissues.  

Here are a few of my favorite syrup recipes: 

elderberry syrup...

Start by mashing and simmering ripe Elderberries over very low heat until they’re a slushy-mushy mess.  You might add a bit of water so as not to initially burn them; just enough to coat the bottom of your pot.  Strain the berries through a sieve or some such device to separate the juice from the solids, then measure how much juice you have, and add that much honey to the juice (more or less equal parts) back into a clean pot.  Add a pinch of cinnamon, clove or ginger and a dash or two of lemon or lime juice.  Heat long enough to mix the honey and extract the spices, then strain out the mix again and you're done. 

Variations: the spices used in this syrup be omitted, or can vary according to availability or imagination.  I’ve replaced all the spices once with local substitutes, such as spicebush berries (taste kinda like allspice), false solomon’s seal berries (anisey flavored), sweet flag root in place of the ginger, and staghorn sumach “berry-aide” (swish the ripe, fuzzy red berry clusters in water for a acidic lemon juice substitute).

Elderberries have been shown to inhibit the mechanism that viruses use to break into our cells and reproduce; thereby slowing their spread in our bodies.  At the same time, elderberries stimulate immune function.  And are potent antioxidants. And they taste really good.  Yum.  More on elder here.

This same recipe can be made with blackberries instead of elderberries, and this, added to a strong tea made by simmering cinnamon in water will do wonders to help with simple diarrhea. 

an easy licorice cough syrup...

I got this recipe from my friend John Gallagher:

Get ahold of some dried licorice root and add about a 1/2 cup to 2 cups of water. and simmer for a half hour.  Strain and measure; add more water or boil it a bit longer so as to get about 1 cup of strained tea.  To this, add a 1/2 cup honey, and stir till blended. Take this by the spoonful, as needed.

Variations: When I make this, I use a mixture of mostly licorice root and some marshmallow root to make a half cup.  After straining the tea and reducing to a bit more than 1 cup, I add 2 tablespoons of elderflowers and maybe a tablespoon or two of bruised anise seeds.  Steep, covered for 15ish minutes and then stain and add honey.

In this syrup, licorice, as well as the honey, helps to moisten the lungs, and it can be very useful for intractably dry coughs.  Marshmallow complements this action and the addition of elderflower helps to support the body’s innate immune response to illness.  And the extra spices make it taste more complete.

Please note that you'll find licorice root sometimes listed as causing or aggravating high blood pressure, but all those studies were done with concentrated licorice - hard to replicate with home preparations.

using honey for powders and pills...

Honey can also be used to deliver dry herbs.  Here, it excels, since the normal vehicle for administering powdered herbs, capsules, is woefully susceptible to degradation.  But, if you mix powdered herbs into honey, the honey not only acts as a vehicle to administer them, but also acts as a preservative.  It is the best way to keep high quality powdered herbs high quality.

Also, I feel that for people who don’t want to consume tinctures made with alcohol, or to take the time to make teas, powdered herbs administered in honey provides the best form for using herbs; much better than most alcohol free extracts/glycerites.

Any assortment of herbs can be mixed into honey, but here’s a particularly good one:

winter cherry honey...

Mix about cup powdered ashwagandha root (Withania somnifera, also called winter cherry), a teaspoon or two each of powdered cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger or other spices into cup honey (the proportions are really all eyeballed).  Stir till you have everything evenly distributed.  This can be taken in the evenings, mixed into a bit of warm milk or something along those lines an hourish before bed to address exhaustion from doing too much for too long.  Ashwagandha is one of my favorite herbs for building the body’s vital energy back up after its been burned out.  My friend Kiva’s write up on it is among the best I've seen.


slippery elm lozenges...

You can also use less honey and make lozenges.  I’d posit that having slippery elm lozenges around is something everyone would benefit from…

Bring a bit more than a 1/2 cup of water to a boil, add a teaspoon of licorice, and simmer for about 10 minutes.  Strain the licorice root out, pour into a 1/2 cup measuring cup, add honey (1-2 Tbsp, depending on how sweet - and initially sticky - you want them), and add enough of your licorice tea to fill the half cup to the brim.  Let the tea cool to lukewarm (so it's safe to work with).  Now put a 1/2 cup of slippery elm powder in a bowl, make a depression in it and add the sweetened tea (like gravy on mashed potatoes). Work it into a dough till it's pliable and evenly moist.  You can add a bit more water or tea if needed.

Either roll the dough up into little balls easiest, or roll them out flat and use an appropriately sized bottle cap to cut out flat circular “pills”.  This is easiest accomplished if you dust the slippery elm dough with some more powder, to mellow out the stickiness.  Spread out the balls/pills and leave in a warm dry place till they're thoroughly dried.  If desired, you can roll them around in powdered slippery elm or licorice to "dust" the outside of them.  Store in glass, or freeze.

You can see a great visual "step by step" of this process here.

Slippery elm is a rich source of soothing mucilage; a carbohydrate that gets “gooey” when moistened and offers a soothing, moistening and protective action on irritated mucous membranes, particularly in the digestive tract.  Also quite soothing to sore throats.  Let them dissolve slowly for maximum benefit.

using heated honey...

(I know… Egad! Sacrilege!)

Colorado herbalist Paul Bergner uses heated honey to extract and preserve herbal powders; the honey is heated till water-thin in a double boiler, then the powdered herb added and stirred.  While the heat will indeed destroy the enzymes in the honey, it also provides optimal extraction of the herbs by exploding the cell walls and making all the virtues of the herbs highly bioavailable.  I know that many would find the degradation of the enzymes to be offensive, but I'm of the opinion that there are many, not one, way to use any given substance.  When cooled, the herb-honey can be rolled up into balls or pills and coated in a bit of licorice powder so they’re not sticky or tacky; the honey will act as a preservative, but they may be frozen to keep them more solid if they’re a bit soft at room temperature. 

Paul shares: A VERY active form with ALL the constituents is recently powdered herb decocted in hot honey. The hot honey is the consistency of water. You get as much powder into it as you can, sort of like adding flour to water to make bread dough. When the honey cools, it thickens and you get a paste. You can roll this into honey pills, roll them in licorice powder etc . . . Or just eat the paste with a spoon or a popsicle stick. This is an amazingly active herbal form, a major form used in contemporary Pakistani Unani Tibb. I believe the honey probably explodes many of the cells, or sucks the plasm out of them, and you have constituents freely dispersed and immediately available in the honey. Even if this is not so, the honey preserves the properties of the powder. Try echinacea root plus osha root rolled in licorice if you want your head blown off.  Also excellent for powdered Chinese tonics -- say, American ginseng, licorice, peony, ho shou wu, and ginger.  Also a great form for taking garlic. Mix recently powdered garlic with a half part of coriander and prepare with honey as above.

Hot Chocolate for the... well, everything...

Well, truth be told, this is one of my absolute favorite means of imbibing honey… really, who could ask for anything better than medicinal hot cocoa?


People no longer remember that Cocoa is a powerful, sacred, medicinal and darned tasty plant.  The chocolate of mass appeal in our country is but a shadow of true Cocoa, being mostly refined sugar, and even the gourmet hot cocoas sold at exorbitant prices abound in artificial flavors and ingredients.  Fortunately, anyone can easily, and within minutes, whip up a cup or pot of steaming Cocoa that not only tastes better than virtually anything they could buy, it's good for them to boot.


Good for you cocoa?


Indeed.  This simple recipe provides a tasty drink with immune stimulating and even anti-viral/antibiotic properties, offers a plethora of vitamins, minerals and nutrients, and is very rich in anti-inflammatory polyphenols...


Ingredients (for one cup):

1 spoonful unsweetened cocoa powder

   (remember, it takes good cocoa powder to make good cocoa…)

1 spoonful honey

Enough hot water to fill a mug


Making a pot?

1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder

1/3 cup honey

4 cups water


To prepare:

Put a scoop of cocoa powder in a mug, add more or less an equal amount of honey (you can adjust the cocoa-to-honey ratio to make the drink sweeter, or more bitter, if you prefer).   Add hot water and drink up.  


The Cocoa (of course) provides the flavor (and the chocolate-euphoria), the Honey sweetens it up and possesses antibacterial, antibiotic, antiviral,  antiinflamatory, anticarcinogenic, anti... well, the list goes on and on.  


Variations: endless.  You can add crushed berries, and an endless array of spices for flavor.


One of my favorite ways to make this for medicinal use is to initially steep marshmallow root (a pinch or two per cup) in the hot water before adding the other ingredients.  This will extract the mucilage from the marshmallow root and add a nice flavor and thickness to the cocoa, as well as make it good for dry coughs and sore throats.  I’ll also add a squirt of propolis tincture and a spoonful of elderberry syrup for each cup of tea, which further enhance both the flavor and the immune supportive action of this insanely good cocoa.


You can also simmer cinnamon in the water before adding the cocoa and honey, which will make it helpful for loose stools and flues with a lot of digestive distress.  Drink it hot.  


And, you can also make an insanely good "hot fudge" by heating honey over very low heat in a saucepan, mashing up some fresh Blackberries (or whatever-berries) in it, and adding Cocoa power to taste and desired consistency.


a few thoughts about propolis…

Propolis is a hard, waxy substance made by bees to line their hives.  Whereas bees use flower nectar to make honey, propolis is made from tree saps and resins.  It is highly antimicrobial (one of the reasons it is used to line the hive it to prevent infection of the hive), it stimulates immune activity, and encourages rapid healing.  Propolis is exceptionally nutritious; Buhner states "Propolis has more bioflavinoids than oranges... and contains all the known vitamins except vitamin K and all the minerals needed by the body except sulphur." 


Propolis tincture...

Propolis is entirely insoluable in water, but will dissolve readily in strong alcohol.  Propolis tincture is such a wonderful thing to have around.  Here in Michigan, you can get 70ish percent  Everclear at some liquor stores; that would be best, of you can’t get someone to bring you 95% Everclear from out of state.  If your propolis is in chunks, to can break it into smaller pieces by freezing it in a plastic bag, then taking it out and immediately banging it with something.  Once you have it close to a gravel consistency, put 1 part propolis in a mason jar with 5 parts Everclear (or other high proof alcohol).  Cap, and steep this for 2 to 4 weeks, shaking every now and again.  Strain this (as best you can) through a wire strainer, and fill a dropper bottle for ease of use.  You can clean up your strainer easily with rubbing alcohol; anything else will likely be difficult at best.

You can use the propolis tincture in cocoa, as mentioned above, or diluted in a bit of water and used as a gargle to soothe enflamed gums or a sore throat, and can help restore the voice.   Like honey, it also exerts a potent antimicrobial action against H. pylori, and is also among the better remedies for addressing cold and canker sores.  The tincture applied topically has also been used on herpes sores outside the mouth.  

Propolis tincture also makes an excellent “liquid bandage”.  Simply apply a few drops topically around a wound, rub it gently around to cover, and blow on it till the alcohol evaporates off.  You can repeat a few times to get a thicker layer.  This “bandage” protects from infection, keeps the wound clean and facilitates healing.  Also, because it’s not soluble at all in water, it won’t come of readily of you get wet, though, eventually, you will sweat it off.  Do be aware that it will sting, being in an alcohol base.  It excels for addressing cuts and scrapes on knuckles and elbows, and other places bandages just don’t seem made for.  I’ve used it once on a large second degree scald, and although it hurt like h*** going on, it did wonders to heal the burn quickly and without scarring.

These are just some of the seemingly endless uses of just a couple of the herbalist bees many creations.  I hope that you’ll be able to make use of some of these recipes and enrich your well bee-ing…

jim mcdonald

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