This is a honey of a non-FDA approved story.
I’m sure none of you is surprised to hear that folk remedies for serious illnesses continue to evolve among those most threatened by infection. I’m not talking about professional scientific researchers, but ordinary people who wonder if there isn’t something science has missed.
In this instance, the example of that is Lyme disease, now endemic across parts of the United States.
For those of you who may not have heard of Lyme disease, here is some background, largely courtesy of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Some studies now show that the disease has been present in America for thousands of years, but it owes its name and designation as a separate condition to an outbreak in 1975 in Old Lyme, Connecticut. Today it’s estimated to affect 300,000 people a year in the US and 65,000 annually in Europe, and there is no vaccine.
|Old Lyme, Connecticut|
The Lyme disease bacterium, Borrelia burgdorferi, is spread through the bite of infected ticks that picked up the bacterium through mice. The blacklegged tick (or deer tick, Ixodes scapularis) spreads the disease in the northeastern, mid-Atlantic, and north-central United States. The western blacklegged tick (Ixodes pacificus) spreads the disease on the Pacific Coast.
Ticks can attach to any part of the human body but are often found in hard-to-see areas such as the groin, armpits, and scalp. In most cases, the tick must be attached for 36 to 48 hours or more before the Lyme disease bacterium can be transmitted.
Most humans are infected through the bites of immature ticks called nymphs. Nymphs are tiny (less than 2 mm) and difficult to see; they feed during the spring and summer months. Adult ticks can also transmit Lyme disease bacteria, but they are much larger and are more likely to be discovered and removed before they have had time to transmit the bacteria.
Typical symptoms include fever, headache, fatigue, and a characteristic skin rash called erythema migrans, but a quarter of those persons infected show no rash. If left untreated, infection can spread to joints, the heart, and the nervous system. Lyme disease is diagnosed based on symptoms, physical findings (e.g., rash), and the possibility of exposure to infected ticks. Laboratory testing is helpful if used correctly and performed with validated methods. Most cases of Lyme disease can be treated successfully with a few weeks of antibiotics. Steps to prevent Lyme disease include using insect repellent, removing ticks promptly, applying pesticides, and reducing tick habitat.
|The classic bullseye rash|
My interest in the subject is pure self-defense. I remember when the disease was unknown to my part of rural Northwestern New Jersey. Today it’s said there are essentially two types of people in my farm community: those who know they have Lyme disease, and those who don’t yet know that they do.
Up to now I’ve luckily not qualified for membership in either party—puh, puh, puh—and I’d like to keep it that way. The trouble is, if you like to spend as much time as I do working in the woods, there seems hardly a way to avoid it, though keeping exposed skin to a bare minimum (literally), and tick repellant liberally applied to what’s uncovered as well as to where your pants tuck into your boots, is good practice. And don’t forget a hat.
But what inspired this column was a conversation I had two days ago with my county forester. If there’s anyone who knows about ticks and Lyme disease, it’s a forester. They spend virtually every working day traipsing through woods and farmland and removing ticks from themselves. My forester’s been doing that for twenty years.
He’d stopped by to check on the work I’ve been doing at clearing away invasive ground cover threatening indigenous plant species. He said that what I’d done had the added benefit of eliminating much of the tick threat, because in his experience there was a direct correlation between the amount of invasive ground cover in the woods and the number of ticks he’d be later picking off his clothes.
Our conversation naturally drifted on to Lyme disease stories and he told me that he was the only forester he knew who’d never contracted it. I asked if he had any idea why that was and he said that up until recently he’d attributed it to being careful to check for ticks and plain good luck.
|Deer tick heaven|
Then he told me of a conversation he’d had a while back with a beekeeper that got him to thinking there just might be a scientific reason for his defying the odds.
According to his beekeeper friend, even though beekeepers are continually exposed to the tick infested outdoors, none of the beekeepers he knew ever had Lyme disease. The beekeeper could see only one explanation for that—bee stings. Beekeepers are continually stung by their bees, and an ingredient in bee sting venom has been shown to break down the membrane surrounding the Lyme disease bacteria, thereby allowing the victim’s immune system to battle and destroy the bacteria.
The explanation made sense to the forester, but it got him to thinking about his own situation. Like many, he’d been stung by bees, but not anywhere near as often as beekeepers. Still, everyday for the past twenty years he’d eaten a teaspoon of honey.
Could it possibly be (no pun intended) that something common to both bee venom and honey helps destroy the Lyme disease bacteria?
I have no idea whether that’s a research subject worth pursuing, or whether it’s already been shown to be a dead end; but for what it’s worth, I’ve long been a lover of Greek honey, especially when at my farm—though I’m also careful around the ticks. As the adage goes, “So, how can it hurt?”
Having subtly worked Greece into this post, I’m happy to say I’m headed back there this coming Thursday to gather up more honey and write a new book. I can’t think of any reason to be concerned about deer ticks on Mykonos, but the honey might help with whatever stinging experiences await me.