To ‘fingerprint’ the floral origin of honey is just as important as the product itself, suggests Dr Liz Barbour from UWA.
The marketing of Manuka honey has been so successful that its price has soared. Counterfeit products are rife!
When you pick up a jar of honey, you think ‘Bees’! But you should also be thinking… which plants have these bees been feeding on?
Why, I hear you ask? Because every jar of honey is vastly different and that’s where the Cooperative Research Centre (CRC) for Honey Bee Products comes in. We focus on the ‘forensics of honey’ and that allows us to ‘fingerprint’ its origins. And that’s important, because the floral source significantly influences levels of bioactivity and the medicinal value of the honey.
Sure, the bee (Apis mellifera) does all the work but the flora determines the chemical signature of the honey. Phytochemicals such as sugar, phenolic and flavonoid levels combined with other bioactive constituents are critically important because they help to determine the anti-microbial and anti-inflammatory properties. Honey’s complex constituents make it of great interest in the war against the decreasing efficacy of antibiotics.
Honey has significant antimicrobial potential due to its high osmolarity associated with its high sugar content and low pH. Some honey also produces hydrogen peroxide in an enzymatic process and the flowers of the Jarrah tree (Eucalyptus marginata) is known to contain particularly high levels.
The CRC both tracks and ascertains the influences of floral source on honey bee products. We have a high level of biodiversity in Australia, and WA is home to eight of Australia’s 15 biodiversity hotspots so it’s highly likely that there is new and unique honey just waiting to be discovered.
Some exciting new research is showing that Australia has a suite of unique Leptospermum species that produce the precursor molecule, dihydroxyacetone (DHA). This is the same molecule produced by New Zealand’s Leptospermum scoparium that produces their stunning Manuka honey, which has the added benefit of stable antimicrobial activity.
It’s probably a timely warning that the marketing of Manuka honey has been so successful that its price has soared. Counterfeit products are rife!
In the development of Honey Health markets, quality control and traceability will be highly important. The CRC is developing a ‘Chain of Custody’ that will reinforce to the next generation of beekeepers the importance of maintaining product value.
An important aspect in the development of high-grade medicinal honey is the establishment of hive sites close to carefully selected Leptospermum plants. This will maximise the production of high-DHA honey. We have 80 species of Leptospermum and the CRC is using information gathered by the University of the Sunshine Coast to breed a uniquely Australian, high-value Leptospermum species.
The end result, ideally, will be a new on-farm industry that will ensure honey bee pollination will take place close to the flora linked with its production.
The CRC is focused on maximising the amount of information relating to flora type, honey bee product production and its medical properties. We’re especially concerned with any downstream effects on flora and the health of the honey bee.
We have to get the balance exactly right.
By Dr Liz Barbour