The gods of ancient Greece knew a good thing when they tasted it. The active ingredient in their staple diet, ambrosia, was nectar - the flowery substance harvested by bees. These insects have been busy producing health-giving food for millennia, and honey is the best known. More than just a marmalade substitute, it is a complex collection of up to 80 substances, including enzymes, plant pigments, organic acids, esters, antibiotic agents and trace minerals.
Raw honey, which still has all the bits and pieces usually strained before it is put into jars, has been known to speed up the healing of wounds and burns, and has antibacterial, anti-allergenic and anti-inflammatory properties. Researchers believe it was the acidity of honey, or a bacteria-killing ingredient called inhibine, that helped heal the sores of a group of patients who had been immune to antibiotics for more than two years. The honey took just one week.
Royal jelly is the thick, milky-white substance made from bee pollen that the queen bee's nursery attendants secrete from glands to feed to the larvae. It contains 20 amino acids, several vitamins and minerals, and gamma-globulin, an immune-stimulating substance. Studies have found that royal jelly can cut cholesterol levels and could be used to counter the deposit of fat in arteries.
Bee pollen is another clever concoction. A highly nutritious food, it contains all 22 known amino acids and all 28 minerals found in humans, and is an excellent source of B-complex vitamins. It has been used to treat low blood pressure, boost the immune system, increase endurance and reduce allergies.
Last of the bee's prodigious output is propolis, or "bee glue". It is a sticky resin that seeps from the buds and bark of certain trees. Bees gather it, mix it with wax and use it to sterilise their hive. A natural antiseptic, propolis also has antibacterial and antiviral properties and increases resistance to disease by stimulating the immune system. Sister Carole Davidson, a nun, has claimed that it helps sufferers of Alzheimer's.
Before using bee products, those with known allergic reactions should consult a doctor.