May 14, 2009
The calls come frequently now: "Where can I buy your honey?"
I've been keeping bees at Genesis Park Community Garden here in the South Bronx for a decade, and word has leaked to the internet: Food bloggers wax poetic over the honeys these bees produce, people Google around for "local honey Bronx" and turn up my name.
Those who call me in the spring usually do not much care how the honey tastes. They want it for medicine.
As they introduce themselves over the phone, even their speech betrays them: Wheezing and congested, they've got pollen allergies. They tell me they've heard through the allergy grapevine that honey from their vicinity can lessen or even cure their affliction. Finding chemical medications either ineffective or repulsive, they're looking for an alternative, natural therapy.
Bees make honey from the nectar of flowering plants, and here in the Northeast, the flower season runs from late March through October. I harvest honey in small batches beginning in June and ending in early fall. By the time allergy season hits hard in May, I have little left to spare. As the eat-locally movement spreads, demand for the bees' magical product leaves me sold out by Christmas. But I always keep back a few jars to distribute to the desperate at dandelion time.
Whether local honey is effective against pollen allergies is unsupported by strict scientific research, mostly because there has been so little of it. As with other natural remedies, honey as a therapeutic agent has been ignored by the medical establishment — understandably, knowing where research money comes from and whither it goes. The website of the National Honey Board, which should have an interest in such things, cites only one peer-reviewed study, done at the University of Connecticut in 2002, in which 36 allergic subjects, divided into three groups, took a daily tablespoon of either local honey, generic honey, or a corn-syrup placebo with synthetic honey flavoring over a 30- week period; the researchers found no difference in the relief of their symptoms.
On the other hand, practitioners of naturopathic medicine quite unanimously assert the contrary: that local honey — and "local" is a relative term; some say a hundred-mile radius is local enough — is "immunotherapeutic," a kind of natural vaccination against pollen allergies. The microscopic pollen grains that waft unseen through the air in spring and fall and trigger allergic reactions are also brought back by bees from their foraging flights and find their way into the honey they make. Eating a spoonful of this honey every day for several weeks before the pollen onslaught allows the immune system gradually to build up tolerance for the invader and minimize or eliminate the reactions.
It makes perfect sense — that's just how a tuberculosis or flu vaccine works.
I find certain problems with this theory, from a beekeeper's standpoint. First, most of the types of pollen that have been identified as principal allergens — right now in New York City, maple, oak, and birch trees are the main culprits — are of little interest to honeybees, because these plants rely on airborne, not insect, pollination. If bees bring these spores back to their honey-factory, it must be in minuscule quantities: Rather than packing them into the pollen-baskets on their legs to be used for food, as they do with attractive plants, they may pick them up incidentally, the tiny grains getting caught in the hairs on their bodies as they fly. But who knows? Perhaps even minute amounts of these pollens present in honey may be enough to placate the immune system.
Second, each allergenic plant blooms only for a matter of days or weeks; thus the honey I harvest in June would contain a different pollen-set than the honey I harvest in August.
These arguments don't seem to bother those who take Bronx honey as medication. They are not fussy as to time of harvest; all the honeys seem to work equally well. I have tracked a number of these clients — you can't really call them customers — over the years, and most of them tell stories of weaning themselves completely off chemical medications with a daily dose of this honey, beginning in February. When I'm in full summertime production, they'll buy cases of honey in advance.
One interesting bit of evidence in support of the vaccination theory comes from a woman in the North Bronx who feels a tingling on her tongue when she takes her daily dose — what I would judge as a mild allergic reaction, like you get from a flu shot.
Of course, it could all be due to the placebo effect — but as research on many more serious afflictions has consistently shown, placebos quite often work, mind vanquishing matter.
Future studies may yet confirm the immunotherapy theory, but, as with the cause, the cure for allergies may be all in your head.