Honey Bee Medicine & The Apothecary
Honey Bees are the Earth’s first and best herbalists. They flit from flower to flower; pollinating and as they do so they collect the plant’s magic pollen dust which then gets imbibed into deliciously healing honey. Bees also collect resin from trees to create propolis, which repairs cracks in their hives and is also a useful human medicine.
Honey bees are the magic link to our food system and are the proverbial canary in the cave when we think about health and balance in our ecosystems — coming soon is a post on how to help the honey bee as both gardener, land steward, eater & herbalist.
The honey bee is a special creature to be protected and revered, especially as we look to strengthen and repair not only our local ecosystems, but as we look to strengthen our own health and wellness.
The Local Honey Pot
Every kitchen and home apothecary should never be without a jar of locally sourced, raw honey. Not only is it a useful culinary staple that can be used frequently in the place of refined, processed sugars (honey’s glycemic index is approximately half that of refined white sugar) but local, raw honey is a truly pure, local medicine made by the honey bees from the plants and flowers that live immediately around us.
Just as it is important to source your food as locally as possible, sourcing local honey is equally important. It is easier than ever before to seek out local, raw honey from a local bee keeper — just visit your local farmers markets or get online and use LocalHarvest.org to find a supplier nearest your locale.
Why local and why raw? Sourcing local honey does a few things: 1) It supports local bee keepers and their work to support local food systems. 2) Honey that comes from local bees is created with the help of plants immediate to your growing area (and often can help support the immune system that may have issues with plant/hay fever allergies).
Raw honey that hasn’t been heat or pasteurized (much of the commercial honey is processed), also contains all the beneficial enzymes and is not usually filtered. It also can have a bigger (and better, in my opinion) aroma and flavor profile representative of the local flora of the immediate area. It’s honey with terroir and higher medicinal power.
Speaking of terroir — Because of the global food trade and economy, much of the commercial honey available at the supermarket today is coming from Brazil, China and other places in the world. Frequently, large producers blend the batches together and because of limited labelling laws, a consumer will often find a label on a jar of honey to identify its place of origin as Brasil, China AND the US — ALL AT ONCE. Multiple countries all in one jar. Additionally, the commercial honey market is becoming increasingly unstable, with more frequent occurrences of adulteration being uncovered every day.
So, be sure to take time to read labels and source your honey from a local apiary or farmer near your home. That said, the purist in me be damned– if the only access you have to honey is the honey bear honey at your local convenience store and you ~need~ it, go for it. Better some honey than no honey at all.
One of my most favorite uses of honey in both my kitchen and apothecary is infused honey. While using straight honey when a cough or cold comes about is easy and fine, there is nothing more divine that spooning out raw honey that has had beautiful herbs and flowers infused into it for several weeks, imparting not only the aromas of the flowers and plants, but their medicinal properties as well. It’s also good on toast. Haha.
Making infused honey. Infusing honey is a very simple process. Gather herbs, flowers then add them to a jar. Then cover with honey and let infuse for at least a few weeks, taking the time to occasionally turn the jar upside down to stir up the plant material.
Some herbs that work well in infused honey include: Chamomile, Lavender, Rose, Jasmine, Orange flower, the invasive (and loved by me Honeysuckle), Lovage, Osha, Bee Balm (any Monarda), Vervain, Mint, Sage, Thyme, or Elderflower — these are just a few. Onion and garlic are also great choices and make for an excellent base for a cough and cold syrup. I prefer to use fresh plant material in season, but supermarket herbs also work, as do dry.
During the infusing process, because of its anti-microbial and preservative qualities, the honey with the herbs will not rot in those several weeks of infusing — especially if stored in a cool, dark place. However, there is the chance that the herbs and honey will begin to ferment — something that will be apparent if the jar produces CO2 and pushes up the lid. In this instance, you are well on your way to making mead. Contact your local brew shop for support on how to create this fine fermented concoction.
When you are ready to eat the honey, the herbs can be strained out or left in the honey — it’s totally up to personal preference.
Uses of infused honey: Infused honeys can be added to herbal teas to help support the body’s immune responses to illness and can also be eaten regularly as added immune support benefit. Note, however, that eating honey is not a replacement for foundational immune strengthening — diet, exercise, stress reduction and sleep are core elements to staying healthy.
Other uses for infused honey includes Herbal truffles and slippery elm pastilles. These are are wonderful honey-based herbal preparations that can be made in large batches and then refrigerated to have on hand when a sore throat or stomach ache come around the home. While it’s possible to make these with plain honey, using infused honey can make these herbal creations especially delicious.
Infused honeys can also be bases for making herbal elixirs — I use mine to make my delicious Elderberry Elixir. It adds not only the medicinal power of the plants & honey, but a nice flavor profile to this important apothecary staple.
Additionally, both plain and infused raw honey can be used topically in wound and burn healing, It’s antimicrobial and antibacterial properties can support the skin & membrane’s healing processes — it can also be used topically in instances of MRSA.
Bee propolis is another bee medicine that should become a staple in every home apothecary. Made from the resins of trees by the bees, it is used within the hives to protect, reinforce and repair the cracks and seams within the bee hives.
This magical substance is frequently leftover on the bee keeper’s hive and can be gathered for preparation into a liquid extract or to be eaten raw. Just be sure to use propolis that is free and clean of paint or linseed oil (common applications to the bee hive itself and can sometimes get into the propolis). To find a local bee keeper near you that may offer propolis, check LocalHarvest.org or visit your nearby farmers market.
Propolis possess the same medicinal properties as honey — the propolis is antimicrobial, antibacterial and is resinous in nature. Because of its resinous nature, it can be used as a liquid bandage in the instances of minor skin irritations, scrapes and fungal irritations (propolis is also antifungal in nature). Take care to not use propolis as a liquid application on a wound that may have debris or infection — it can seal in infection and can potentially cause more irritation than heal. And that’s no good.
Propolis is also frequently used by herbalists to heal sore throats (it is wonderful as a throat spray mixed with echinacea, osha and elecampane). A liquid extract is helpful for easy preparation — I put mine in a spray bottle (also many commercial herbal products producers make a spray, which is good if you can’t be bothered with making your own spray).
NOTE: In the instance of strep throat it can also be used, but because strep so frequently can only be cleared up with strict adherence to an herbal protocol (not to mention ridiculously contagious), this is one instance where I turn to an antibiotic. Propolis can be used in tandem with an antibiotic to soothe the hot, scratchy symptoms of the strep.
To prepare propolis. Freeze the resinous propolis to allow for easy smashing — freezing it allows it to not become a sticky mass otherwise. With a 1:4 ratio, prepare a liquid tincture of propolis using a high proof alcohol (In Michigan, the easiest to source is Everclear or Bacardi 151). Allow the propolis to extract for about 6 weeks. Strain and bottle, noting that everything the liquid propolis touches will gum up and become sticky. Clean materials and bottle lids with Everclear to get it clean.
Beeswax is the third bee medicine that every home herbalist should have on hand — especially the local kind as it smells particularly divine. It’s a key ingredient in making salves and balms and creams!
In a time where more and more information is coming forward as to the toxicity of topical creams, cosmetics, and cleansers, making healthful skin preparations is an easy solution to avoid the petro chemicals & endocrine disruptors AND save a bit of money on beauty care! Using infused oils blended with the beeswax can result in salves that can be very useful to have also in the medicine kit. Here’s an easy herbal salve how-to by Mountain Rose Herbs.
~ to learn more about these and other folk medicine making preparations, check out my class list!~