WA honey shows medical potential

10.12.20

Patients presenting to doctors with chronic wounds may one day be treated with an ointment containing honey from certain species of Western Australian (WA) plants. That’s the quietly held dream of microbiologist Dr Kate Hammer, The University of Western Australia. While the early research that may lead in this direction looks promising, Dr Hammer is well aware that such an outcome is a long way in the future. Her more prosaic short-term ideal is to see the WA honey industry reap financial rewards from the unique honey it produces.

Photo supplied by Dr Kate Hammer

“WA, and in particular the South-West corner of WA, is a biodiversity hotspot with a very high endemic species diversity and richness,” Dr Hammer said. “As a result of bees foraging on each unique species, a wide variety of floral honeys are produced.”

Dr Hammer and her UWA colleagues have investigated the antibacterial activity and physicochemical properties of over 300 honey samples gathered from across WA in a research project funded by AgriFutures Honey Bee & Pollination Program, Development of honey bee products from a biodiversity hotspot. Honeys were derived from diverse floral sources including Eucalyptus (18 species; 154 honey samples), Banksia (5 species; 30 honeys) and Corymbia (3 species; 32 honeys), and others including Agonis, Calothamnus, Callistemon, Leptospermum and Melaleuca.

The research provides rigorous scientific data to support the long-held beliefs that many WA honeys, such as those derived from jarrah (Eucalyptus marginata), marri (Corymbia calophylla) and karri (Eucalyptus diversicolor), possess relatively high antibacterial activity. Data were also collected on a range of rarer honeys that had not previously been investigated thoroughly.

“All honey will have some antimicrobial activity because it is a saturated sugar solution, but it is a matter of how much activity they have,” Dr Hammer said. She explained that exposure to saturated sugar solutions causes bacterial cells to rupture, due to the differences in sugar concentrations inside and outside the cells – a concept scientists refer to as osmotic potential. Some of honey’s anti-microbial activity is caused by this phenomenon, but it doesn’t explain everything.

Pictured Dr Kate Hammer and Kathryn Green. Supplied by Jill Griffiths.

Dr Hammer’s colleague, UWA medicinal chemist Associate Professor Connie Locher, developed a fingerprinting technique to analyse the phenolic fraction of the honeys tested in the research. The phenolic fraction, which Dr Hammer describes as the “magic fairy dust”, comes from the nectar bees collect and helps give different types of honey different properties.

Dr Locher also analysed other physical and chemical components of the honey, including the refractive index, Brix, pH, hydrogen peroxide generation, colour, total phenolics content and antioxidant levels (Ferric Reducing Antioxidant Power or FRAP). The researchers then correlated and evaluated the relationships between antibacterial activity and physicochemical factors. No especially strong relationships were found, making it hard to determine cause and effect.

Dr Hammer said the strongest relationship (moderate strength) found was between levels of hydrogen peroxide generated and activity.

“Relationships between antibacterial activity and honey colour or total phenolics content were relatively weak,” she said. “Further work is needed to understand the relationship between physicochemical attributes and antibacterial activity.

“Honey is a very complicated puzzle with a lot of pieces. I’d like to get a better understanding of how it all fits together.”

AgriFutures Australia Research Manager, Annelies McGaw, says that the idea behind this project is to drive a greater understanding of the antibacterial effects of honeys, and varieties of honey that produce these effects. This would provide the WA beekeeping industry and individual apiarists with solid evidence about the benefits of their unique monofloral honeys, that is honey that comes from a single floral source.

“Honeys with high antibacterial and anti-oxidant activity typically attract a higher sale price, which increases the profitability and value of the beekeeping industry. We now have strong evidence that many of our local WA honeys have high antibacterial activity, which is great news for the WA honey industry,” said Ms McGaw

Photo supplied by Dr Kate Hammer

Dr Hammer believes that the findings will help both the honey bee industry and the medical industry.

“Our findings will help apiarists understand the likely attributes of each monofloral honey source, and will also be of use to health professionals seeking to understand the unique characteristics of honeys derived from an individual floral source.

“I’d like to see WA honeys valued for what they are and marketed appropriately. It’s good to be able to put some science behind what people have always been saying,” Said Dr Hammer.

Dr Kate Hammer. Photo supplied by Jill Griffiths.