South East Wales

Bees' role in superbug fight, finds Cardiff research

Beekeepers could hold the key to fighting a variety of drug-resistant superbugs, according to new research.

It has long been thought that honey's acidic qualities and low water content are antiseptic factors.

Cardiff University's Welsh School of Pharmacy is beginning to isolate the importance played by drugs within flowers from which nectar is collected.

Beekeepers are being urged to submit samples of their honey in the hope they may provide a clue to new drugs.

The earliest depiction of humans collecting honey is a cave-painting in Valencia, on Spain's eastern coast, thought to date from around 8000 BC.

Since about 4000 BC, the ancient Hindi medical theory of Ayurveda outlined honey's medicinal qualities in treating burns, allergies and infections.

Western cultures have eventually caught up by devising honey-based wound dressings and oral medicines.

But the composition of honey varies greatly, and it depends on the local flora in the bees' immediate environment.

Professor Les Baillie of the Welsh School of Pharmacy asked as many amateur and private beekeepers as possible to send in samples of their honey.

"A lot of drug development involves expensive laboratory screening of a huge variety of plant products, often without success," said Prof Baillie.

"We're hoping to cut out the middle man and let the bees do a lot of the hard work, guiding to us those plants which work.

"We're hoping the public can provide us with as much home-made honey as possible - they could supply the vital breakthrough in fighting these bacteria."

Useful chemicals

Early indications show that certain honeys could contain weapons against so-called superbugs, like MRSA and Clostridium difficile (C.diff), for which there is currently no effective treatment.

After the Welsh School of Pharmacy identifies useful chemicals, it will pass on the DNA signature of the plant in question for identification by the National Botanic Garden of Wales in Carmarthenshire.

It is the first practical application of the garden's multimillion-pound project to barcode the DNA sequence of every plant native to Wales, to allow instant identification of a species by scientists, police or anyone else for whom the information could be valuable.

Image caption The medicinal properties of honey have been known for centuries

Dr Natasha de Vere, of the garden, said: "We have nearly completed our Barcode Wales project to DNA barcode each of the 1,143 flowering plants in Wales and are excited to be developing our first applications that use this fantastic resource.

"We can see which honeys have the best results against infectious diseases that affect humans and bees and use DNA barcoding to identify the plants making the honey."

But it is by no means all give and no take for the bees, as the project also aims to identify plant chemicals which will help in the battle against pests and diseases decimating the UK bee population.

The garden says bee pollination is worth an estimated £100m to British agriculture every year, yet the Varroa mite and the bacterium Paenibacillus larvae are threatening to destroy bees and their vital role in this delicate ecosystem.

Any beekeepers who would like to take part in the study need to submit a 200ml sample of their honey, along with as detailed a list as possible of the plants from which the bees have been collecting nectar.

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