Bee’s knees: The health benefits of Irish honey

SWEETNESS AND LIGHT: Robyn, the daughter of BeeActiv founder Conan McDonell, with a jar of awardwinning ivy honey which has almost the same number of antibacterial properties as manuka honey.

COUGHING and spluttering in this season of dreariness? Before trying over-the-counter mixtures or resorting to antibiotics, try this World Health Organisation-approved remedy — a single teaspoon of honey three times a day, writes Clodagh Finn.

It doesn’t have to be three spoons of the heavily marketed (and heavily priced) manuka honey, either. Recent research has shown that Irish honey has just as many health benefits as its New Zealand counterpart.

Irish heather honey, for instance, has a comparable number of antioxidants to manuka honey, according to research led by PhD student Saorla Kavanagh, just published in Food Chemistry journal.

However, when it comes to chesty coughs and bronchitis, research by Limerick-based beekeeper and scientist Conan McDonnell has shown ivy honey to be most effective.

McDonnell turned to his interest in beekeeping when he lost his job in car sales during the downturn in 2009. He signed up for a chemistry degree at Limerick Institute of Technology and as part of his final-year research project studied the healing and health properties of ivy honey.

He discovered that saponins, the chemical compounds in ivy leaves that help clear mucus and improve breathing, were also present in honey produced from the ivy plant. The following year, he teamed up with fellow beekeeper and his former lecturer Michael Geary to produce ivy honey, a type of honey that is notoriously hard to harvest as it crystallises so quickly.

The scientist-beekeepers, however, found a way around that issue at their honey house in Ballyporeen, Co Tipperary, and produced raw ivy honey under the company label BeeActiv.

They added Irish blossom honey to the range as well as ivy honey lozenges, a natural lemon and menthol-flavoured product designed to soothe respiratory complaints.

Then, to find out just how effective ivy honey was in fighting coughs, BeeActiv commissioned further research into ivy honey’s antibacterial properties at Limerick Institute of Technology, McDonnell tells Feelgood.

The study revealed that ivy honey had almost the same number of antibacterial properties as manuka honey. A jar of BeeActiv honey, however, costs €13.95 compared to up to €40 for a similar jar of manuka honey.

“The ivy honey showed its greatest effects against the growth of E.coli and staphylococcus aureus bacteria, commonly known for causing gut upsets and wound infections respectively,” McDonnell says.

He goes on to explain that honey kills bacteria in three ways. It has natural antibacterial properties; its high sugar content makes it hard for bacteria to survive and it also has natural enzymes that kill bacteria.

That is why honey is at least as effective as cough syrups, excluding expectorants, at relieving the irritation of mucous membranes, he says.

If you are suffering from a cough or cold, here is Conan McDonnell and Michael Geary’s prescription: rest, keep warm, get lots of hot drinks and take one spoon of ivy honey three times a day.

“Let it melt in the mouth to give it a chance to coat the throat,” says McDonnell. And that shouldn’t be a hardship as BeeActiv won a three-star Great Taste Award this year as well as gold in the Blas na hEireann food awards.

Ken Norton of the Federation of Irish Beekeepers Associations is also a firm believer in the health benefits of Irish honey and takes a teaspoon or two daily in the same way that you might take a vitamin supplement.

“In the past, people applied ivy honey directly to cuts and also took it to help ease bronchitis,” he says, saying that there is nothing new about the curative powers of honey.

Recent studies showing that Irish honey has similar antioxidant and antibacterial properties to manuka honey don’t surprise him. At a recent honey show in the UK, Irish beekeepers came away with 11 first prizes from a competition that had over 2,000 entries, he says, giving just one example of the unique quality of Irish honey.

However, bees everywhere are under threat although Ken Norton says city bees are doing better than country bees because of intensive farming and the use of pesticides.

The federation has forged links with local communities to encourage biodiversity. It also hopes to encourage more young people to take up beekeeping (

As studies have shown, bees are not only essential for the environment but honey is literally buzzing with health benefits.

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