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The Curious Beekeeper

The Effectiveness of Honey for Treating Seasonal Allergies

- November 1, 2023 - Rusty Burlew - (excerpt)

honey in jars

I begin this tirade with a disclaimer: I am not a doctor, nor do I have allergies. However, that has never stopped me from having an opinion. Much like a hornet casing a beehive, I like to scrutinize senseless bits of conventional wisdom. And like the hornet, I keep searching for a back door, a crack, a way to bring it down, one step at a time.

After that confession, I needn’t state my opinion on the value of honey for seasonal allergies. Nor am I alone in my skepticism. Plenty of studies have found no evidence that pollen in honey has any effect on pollen-induced allergies.1

On the contrary, allergy expert David Stukus, at the Ohio State University College of Medicine, says, “If honey contained the same type of pollen responsible for seasonal allergies, then people would experience reactions from eating it, not relief.”2

Yet, despite the evidence, I believe those who swear by honey as a cure should continue eating it. More on that later.

Allergies from the far side

When I heard of people eating local honey for allergy management, I questioned the idea. Now, decades later, I still can’t wrap my mind around it. Why? No data.

When I ask those who eat honey for seasonal allergies what they are allergic to, the answer is usually nebulous, something like spring, pollen, or plants. When I ask beekeepers what pollen is in their honey, I get responses like, “Blackberry, I guess” or “I think it’s mostly fireweed.” Like me, they don’t know what pollen floats inside their little bears, or how much.

And when people request local honey, I ask, “What do you mean by local?” They often shrug. “You know, from around here. It’s for my sister in Spokane.” “Here” is 333 miles as the crow flies from Spokane, on the far side of a mountain range and a desert. But it’s still Washington, right? Local can mean whatever you want.

Seasonal allergies in North America

One thing we don’t lack is data on seasonal allergies. According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA), most allergy-inducing pollen comes from trees, grasses, and weeds that produce “small, light, and dry pollen grains” that float on the wind. These tiny pollen grains enter our eyes and respiratory system where they can cause red, itchy, and swollen eyes; sneezing; wheezing; and coughing.

And therein lies my first objection. Honey seldom contains those small, light, and dry pollen grains carried by the wind. To nourish the colony, honey bees are partial to heavier, larger, and stickier pollen grains, the kind that glue themselves into a pollen basket. These bulky, clingy grains are found in flowers that evolved to attract bee pollinators, known as mellitophilous plants.

Airborne pollen floats like smoke

Those clouds of windborne pollen that cause so much misery rarely interest honey bees, especially when alternatives are plentiful. In spring, with endless pollen sources to choose from, honey bees don’t bother with the puny, desiccated grains that cause allergies.

According to the AAFA, North American plants most likely to cause seasonal (usually spring) allergies include trees such as birch, cedar, pine, mulberry, oak, ash, alder, aspen, beech, and cottonwood. Because nature hates waste, most wind-pollinated plants don’t expend energy producing attractive flowers or sweet nectar. Wind is cheap, so why cater to pollinators?

However, honey bees do occasionally collect some of the smaller pollen grains, especially when better pollen is scarce. We’ve all seen bees collect pollen from corn and sometimes from timothy, fine fescue, and meadow foxtail. I’ve also seen them collect Alaska cedar pollen in arid years. So, isn’t it possible this wispy pollen lands in the honey?

Why windborne pollen rarely gets into honey

The amount of wind-blown pollen that gets in the honey is negligible. Why? Because bee-attractive flowers generate both nectar and pollen concurrently, meaning when one becomes scarce, so does the other. But the bees’ need for fresh pollen doesn’t disappear in a nectar dearth even if the colony has copious honey stored in the hive.

Because fresh pollen is best, bees in a nectar dearth continue to forage for it, sometimes collecting from alternative pollen sources such as those airy, wind-blown varieties. However, since wind-dependent flowers don’t produce nectar, the colony is not actively making honey. As a result, the windborne pollen grains rarely get into the honey supply.3

Of course, any pollen floating through the air could land in a cell of ripening honey. But it would be a chance occurrence and not dependable from year to year. Also, the amount would be small, probably not enough to help a human build resistance to the allergen, regardless of how much honey a person ate.

Origins of a strange belief

An article on WebMD, “Does Honey Prevent Seasonal Allergies?” claims that people confuse honey consumption with pollen immunotherapy. In doctor-supervised immunotherapy, skin and blood tests determine precisely which pollens cause the allergic reaction by assessing the antibodies.

Once the doctor identifies an allergen, he injects the patient with ever-increasing doses, hoping to build a tolerance. Although this technique works for pollen allergies, it is not effective with things like food allergies.

Immunotherapy differs greatly from consuming random jars of honey, hoping it contains enough of the right type of pollen. Customers who claim to be using honey for allergies usually ask if the honey is local. But no one ever asks when the bees collected it, what plants they foraged on, or whether it contains certain kinds of pollen. They don’t even ask how local is local. More often than not, they’ll buy spring honey hoping to protect themselves from a ragweed (fall) allergy. That makes no sense.

Likewise, I’ve seen folks buy fall honey, most likely fall dandelion, goldenrod, or Japanese knotweed, to prepare their “system” for spring allergies. Even if the pollen in honey could alleviate allergies, if the patient doesn’t care — or more likely, doesn’t know — what pollen it contains, it’s a pointless exercise. It’s like walking blindfolded into a pharmacy and choosing a random bottle of pills hoping it cures what ails you.

What happens when you eat pollen?

A separate consideration is what your digestive system does to the pollen you consume. An injection of allergen directly into your bloodstream differs from a dose that goes through your digestive tract. Research has shown that humans do not digest pollen easily, if at all. The tough outer layer of pollen called the exine is highly protective of the gametes within, so the pollen is likely to exit a mammal in the same format as it entered.

According to multiple sources, the allergens reside in the exine of the pollen grain. This makes sense since allergic individuals need only inhale the pollen to trigger a reaction. But that doesn’t answer the question of whether the allergen can be digested and neutralized, or whether it passes through the body unharmed. Does a consumed allergen ever enter the bloodstream like a doctor-prescribed injection? I haven’t found conclusive answers to this question, but we shouldn’t assume injecting and ingesting produce identical results.

How much pollen is in the honey?

Let’s say, at least for a moment, that consuming pollen could mitigate allergies. How do we know what pollen at what concentration is in any sample of honey? Even if honey bees collected the nectar in the right area, from the right plants, and during the proper season, it doesn’t mean it contains the desired pollen. Or if some is present, is it enough to matter?

Think about this: If you grind up a few aspirin tablets and stir them into a five-gallon bucket of honey, would you expect a teaspoon of it added to your tea to cure your next headache? Of course not. But people expect that kind of trace miracle from a few pollen grains in a humongous jar of honey.

If a beekeeper extracted the honey, he might have filtered it as well. Many beekeepers stop at straining, which is a macro process that takes out the big stuff: floaters, wings, legs, chunks of wax, and random insects and offspring. But many other beekeepers also filter it, partly to remove teeny items like eggs and dirt, but also to remove the larger pollen grains.

Particles in honey, including pollen, can seed crystallization, so one reason for filtering is to delay the formation of crystals. So-called ultrafiltration removes even more, so the honey has at least a chance of staying liquid (read salable) for much longer.

But those processes, which are very common, lead to another question consumers seldom ask: Has the honey been filtered? Sometimes people ask if it’s raw, but even the definition of raw is flexible. Some beekeepers assume raw simply means not heated (or not heated very much), while others think raw means unheated and unfiltered.

This is what I mean by “no data.” From my informal surveys of people who use honey for allergies, it seems few know anything about the honey they buy, nor do they have concrete evidence of its effectiveness.

Is it ethical to sell honey for allergies?

For years, I tried to convince people that research describes no conclusive relationship between eating honey and relief from seasonal allergies. Despite medical websites that discredit the idea, you can find legions of people who swear by it. And they spend lots of money to buy the local honey they believe keeps them allergy-free.

It doesn’t matter if the honey came from the right area, the proper season, or how often the bees visited those plants. It doesn’t matter if their allergies come from wind-blown pollen that bees never touch. It doesn’t even matter if the honey has no pollen at all. As long as it’s local honey (whatever that means), they are happy.

Several beekeepers have warned me to keep my opinions to myself: “I don’t want my customers over-thinking it,” they say. But honestly? It doesn’t matter. Those who want to believe local honey relieves their allergies are going to. No number of studies, logical arguments, or pollen analyses will make any difference.

On the other hand, I am astounded by some of the very explicit instructions I’ve read from beekeepers. I have a pamphlet that I picked up at a honey stand at a farmers market. It says, “For seasonal allergies, start with a small amount of honey, one teaspoon per day, taken in the, ….