Without pollinators like honeybees, we would have no crop foods. Now, it seems these humble insects may offer another valuable service – as alternative tools against infection in a world that is running out of antibiotics to fight emerging drug-resistant pathogens.
Researchers at Lund University in Sweden have discovered that a group of lactic acid bacteria found in the honey stomachs of honeybees has antimicrobial properties – including the ability to fight MRSA and other human bacteria in the lab – and should be investigated as an alternative to antibiotics.
They report their findings in the International Wound Journal.
Given that people have used fresh honey to heal wounds for thousands of years, it is surprising how little scientists know about the antimicrobial properties of fresh honey.
The Lund researchers are investigating the properties of fresh honey that contains live bacteria, as opposed to the honey that you can buy in stores, which contains only dead bacteria.
Dr. Tobias Olofsson, a specialist in Medical Microbiology at Lund, and colleagues identified a unique group of 13 lactic acid bacteria in the fresh honey found in the stomachs of honey bees.
The lactic acid bacteria – which live in symbiosis with bees in their stomachs and appear to be involved in the production of honey – produce a range of antimicrobial compounds. The bacteria are present in large amounts in fresh, untreated honey around the world, note the researchers.
In their research, the team used honey that is enriched with lactic acid bacteria taken from the stomachs of bees.
They found the lactic acid bacteria were effective against MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus), VRE (vancomycin-resistant Enterococcus), Pseudomonas aeruginosa, and other pathogens that cause serious infections in hospital patients and people with weakened immune systems.
The tests on these human pathogen bacteria were carried out in lab cultures – trials in humans have not yet been done.
One of the researchers explains their findings in the video below:
However, the team did test the effect of honey enriched with lactic acid bacteria on live horses. They tested it on 10 horses with persistent wounds where their owners had tried several other ways to heal them with no success. All 10 horses were healed successfully with the enriched honey.
The team believes it is the broad spectrum of active substances made by the lactic acid bacteria that produces the strong results, as Dr. Olofsson explains:
“Antibiotics are mostly one active substance, effective against only a narrow spectrum of bacteria. When used alive, these 13 lactic acid bacteria produce the right kind of antimicrobial compounds as needed, depending on the threat.”
He says the method “seems to have worked well for millions of years of protecting bees’ health and honey against other harmful microorganisms.”
But you are not likely to get these results from store-bought honey, he adds, since “store-bought honey doesn’t contain the living lactic acid bacteria, many of its unique properties have been lost in recent times.”
He and his colleagues call for further research to investigate if these lactic acid bacteria have potential use as alternatives to antibiotics in treating human and animal wound infections.
They suggest the findings could be important not only for Western countries, where antibiotic resistance is a serious and growing problem, but also for developing countries, where fresh honey is easily available.
Meanwhile, in July 2013, an international research team drew attention to the fact honeybees are harmed by widely used pesticides. They found while several commonly used pesticides may not kill honeybees, they cause harm by disrupting enzymes that regulate – among other things – the bees’ immune responses, foraging behavior, homing flight, associative learning and brood development.
Medical News Today recently published a spotlight feature investigating how antibiotic resistance has become a global public health threat.