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Breaking the code

A 3D scanned image of  Taraxacum  Pollen - one of the antibacterial plants identified in our study.
A 3D scanned image of Taraxacum Pollen - one of the antibacterial plants identified in our study.

For thousands of years, honey has been used to treat sore throats, wounds and infections, due to compounds present in the honey that kill bacteria.

These properties are the result of a range of factors including the phytochemicals donated by the plants. The contribution of these phytochemicals to the overall antibacterial activity of a particular honey depends on the properties of the plants visited by the bees. For example, Manuka honey from New Zealand is produced when bees forage on the Manuka bush (Leptospermum scoparium), a plant that produces a compound with potent antibacterial properties.

The search to identify other antibacterial phytochemicals has led to the screening of honey produced by bees that have fed on plants from a variety of UK habitats.

Our plan was to employ bees as private investigators and to send them out to interview every flowering plant in the country. During each visit, they collect a forensic material in the form of nectar containing phytochemicals – some of which may be antibacterial – and pollen which holds the DNA fingerprint of the plant.

Dr Jennifer Hawkins

Healing honey

Using the knowledge from this project, it is possible to create a special honey by leading bees to plants with strong antibacterial elements.

Professor Les Baillie and his team are now trying to put these plants in as many places as possible for the bees to feed upon.

They plan to use a grass meadow on the rooftop of St David’s 2 shopping centre in Cardiff, where they can place beehives, to see if bees will produce honey with antibacterial properties. They are also engaged with the community in Grangetown in Cardiff and are using the disused bowling green to creating a new habitat for bees there too.

The Eisteddfod

Professor Arwyn Jones from the School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences worked with Julian Rees from Pollen8 Cymru to expand the reach of the project, and organised a large science exhibition in the Science and Technology Pavilion at the 2014 National Eisteddfod of Wales in Llanelli.

Welsh beekeepers were invited to take 200g honey samples to the Eisteddfod to help widen the study of honey from around Wales.

Barcode Wales

The project also incorporates the Barcode Wales project, led by the National Botanic Garden of Wales and supervised by Natasha de Vere, and has created DNA bar codes for 1,143 indigenous flowering plants and conifers in Wales.

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If you are interested in this research, get in touch.