honey

How effective is honey for seasonal allergies?

A man with seasonal allergies, probably related to pollen.

Uncover the truth about using honey for seasonal allergies. Learn why there is no scientific evidence to support this age-old remedy.

Inside: Allergy sufferers swear by it, but science finds no support. Here are some reasons behind the dispute.

I begin this tirade with a disclaimer: I am not a doctor, nor do I have allergies. However, that has never stopped me from having an opinion. Much like a hornet casing a beehive, I like to scrutinize senseless bits of conventional wisdom. And like the hornet, I keep searching for a back door, a crack, a way to bring it down, one step at a time.

This article first appeared in American Bee Journal, Volume 163 No. 11, November 2023, pp. 1191-1194.

After that confession, I needn’t state my opinion on the value of honey for seasonal allergies. Nor am I alone in my skepticism. Plenty of studies have found no evidence that pollen in honey has any effect on pollen-induced allergies.1

On the contrary, allergy expert David Stukus, at the Ohio State University College of Medicine, says, “If honey contained the same type of pollen responsible for seasonal allergies, then people would experience reactions from eating it, not relief.”2

Yet, despite the evidence, I believe those who swear by honey as a cure should continue eating it. More on that later.

Allergies from the far side

When I heard of people eating local honey for allergy management, I questioned the idea. Now, decades later, I still can’t wrap my mind around it. Why? No data.

When I ask those who eat honey for seasonal allergies what they are allergic to, the answer is usually nebulous, something like spring, pollen, or plants. When I ask beekeepers what pollen is in their honey, I get responses like, “Blackberry, I guess” or “I think it’s mostly fireweed.” Like me, they don’t know what pollen floats inside their little bears, or how much.

And when people request local honey, I ask, “What do you mean by local?” They often shrug. “You know, from around here. It’s for my sister in Spokane.” “Here” is 333 miles as the crow flies from Spokane, on the far side of a mountain range and a desert. But it’s still Washington, right? Local can mean whatever you want.

Common ragweed, Ambrosia artemisiifolia, produces lots of fine, lightweight pollen that causes frequent allergies in the fall. Many beekeepers say honey bees will collect ragweed pollen until the moment the golden rod blooms, then abandon it completely.
Common ragweed, Ambrosia artemisiifolia, (not shown) produces lots of fine, lightweight pollen that causes frequent allergies in the fall. Many beekeepers say honey bees will collect ragweed pollen until the moment the goldenrod (seen above) blooms, then abandon it completely.

Seasonal allergies in North America

One thing we don’t lack is data on seasonal allergies. According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA), most allergy-inducing pollen comes from trees, grasses, and weeds that produce “small, light, and dry pollen grains” that float on the wind. These tiny pollen grains enter our eyes and respiratory system where they can cause red, itchy, and swollen eyes; sneezing; wheezing; and coughing.

And therein lies my first objection. Honey seldom contains those small, light, and dry pollen grains carried by the wind. To nourish the colony, honey bees are partial to heavier, larger, and stickier pollen grains, the kind that glue themselves into a pollen basket. These bulky, clingy grains are found in flowers that evolved to attract bee pollinators, known as melittophilous plants.

Airborne pollen floats like smoke

Those clouds of windborne pollen that cause so much misery rarely interest honey bees, especially when alternatives are plentiful. In spring, with endless pollen sources to choose from, honey bees don’t bother with the puny, desiccated grains that cause allergies.

According to the AAFA, North American plants most likely to cause seasonal (usually spring) allergies include trees such as birch, cedar, pine, mulberry, oak, ash, alder, aspen, beech, and cottonwood. Because nature hates waste, most wind-pollinated plants don’t expend energy producing attractive flowers or sweet nectar. Wind is cheap, so why cater to pollinators?

However, honey bees do occasionally collect some of the smaller pollen grains, especially when better pollen is scarce. We’ve all seen bees collect pollen from corn and sometimes from timothy, fine fescue, and meadow foxtail. I’ve also seen them collect Alaska cedar pollen in arid years. So, isn’t it possible this wispy pollen lands in the honey?

The pollen of corn, Zea mays, originates in the small flowers of the tassel. Although corn is wind-pollinated, bees sometimes collect the pollen, especially when little else is in bloom.
The pollen of corn, Zea mays, originates in the small flowers of the tassel. Although corn is wind-pollinated, bees sometimes collect the pollen, especially when little else is blooming

Why windborne pollen rarely gets into honey

The amount of wind-blown pollen that gets in the honey is negligible. Why? Because bee-attractive flowers generate both nectar and pollen concurrently, meaning when one becomes scarce, so does the other. But the bees’ need for fresh pollen doesn’t disappear in a nectar dearth even if the colony has copious honey stored in the hive.

Because fresh pollen is best, bees in a nectar dearth continue to forage for it, sometimes collecting from alternative pollen sources such as those airy, wind-blown varieties. However, since wind-dependent flowers don’t produce nectar, the colony is not actively making honey. As a result, the windborne pollen grains rarely get into the honey supply.3

Of course, any pollen floating through the air could land in a cell of ripening honey. But it would be a chance occurrence and not dependable from year to year. Also, the amount would be small, probably not enough to help a human build resistance to the allergen, regardless of how much honey a person ate.

Origins of a strange belief

An article on WebMD, “Does Honey Prevent Seasonal Allergies?” claims that people confuse honey consumption with pollen immunotherapy. In doctor-supervised immunotherapy, skin and blood tests determine precisely which pollens cause the allergic reaction by assessing the antibodies.

Once the doctor identifies an allergen, he injects the patient with ever-increasing doses, hoping to build a tolerance. Although this technique works for pollen allergies, it is not effective with things like food allergies.

Immunotherapy differs greatly from consuming random jars of honey, hoping it contains enough of the right type of pollen. Customers who claim to be using honey for allergies usually ask if the honey is local. But no one ever asks when the bees collected it, what plants they foraged on, or whether it contains certain kinds of pollen. They don’t even ask how local is local. More often than not, they’ll buy spring honey hoping to protect themselves from a ragweed (fall) allergy. That makes no sense.

Likewise, I’ve seen folks buy fall honey, most likely fall dandelion, goldenrod, or Japanese knotweed, to prepare their “system” for spring allergies. Even if the pollen in honey could alleviate allergies, if the patient doesn’t care — or more likely, doesn’t know — what pollen it contains, it’s a pointless exercise. It’s like walking blindfolded into a pharmacy and choosing a random bottle of pills hoping it cures what ails you.

Many trees, like birch, shed clouds of pollen in early spring, causing widespread misery.
Many trees, like birch, shed clouds of pollen in early spring, causing widespread misery.

What happens when you eat pollen?

A separate consideration is what your digestive system does to the pollen you consume. An injection of allergen directly into your bloodstream differs from a dose that goes through your digestive tract. Research has shown that humans do not digest pollen easily, if at all. The tough outer layer of pollen called the exine is highly protective of the gametes within, so the pollen is likely to exit a mammal in the same format as it entered.

According to multiple sources, the allergens reside in the exine of the pollen grain. This makes sense since allergic individuals need only inhale the pollen to trigger a reaction. But that doesn’t answer the question of whether the allergen can be digested and neutralized, or whether it passes through the body unharmed. Does a consumed allergen ever enter the bloodstream like a doctor-prescribed injection? I haven’t found conclusive answers to this question, but we shouldn’t assume injecting and ingesting produce identical results.

How much pollen is in the honey?

Let’s say, at least for a moment, that consuming pollen could mitigate allergies. How do we know what pollen at what concentration is in any sample of honey? Even if honey bees collected the nectar in the right area, from the right plants, and during the proper season, it doesn’t mean it contains the desired pollen. Or if some is present, is it enough to matter?

Think about this: If you grind up a few aspirin tablets and stir them into a five-gallon bucket of honey, would you expect a teaspoon of it added to your tea to cure your next headache? Of course not. But people expect that kind of trace miracle from a few pollen grains in a humongous jar of honey.

If a beekeeper extracted the honey, he might have filtered it as well. Many beekeepers stop at straining, which is a macro process that takes out the big stuff: floaters, wings, legs, chunks of wax, and random insects and offspring. But many other beekeepers also filter it, partly to remove teeny items like eggs and dirt, but also to remove the larger pollen grains.

Particles in honey, including pollen, can seed crystallization, so one reason for filtering is to delay the formation of crystals. So-called ultrafiltration removes even more, so the honey has at least a chance of staying liquid (read salable) for much longer.

But those processes, which are very common, lead to another question consumers seldom ask: Has the honey been filtered? Sometimes people ask if it’s raw, but even the definition of raw is flexible. Some beekeepers assume raw simply means not heated (or not heated very much), while others think raw means unheated and unfiltered.

This is what I mean by “no data.” From my informal surveys of people who use honey for allergies, it seems few know anything about the honey they buy, nor do they have concrete evidence of its effectiveness.

Most bees like large-grained, sticky pollen that is easy to collect and transport.
Most bees like large-grained, sticky pollen that is easy to collect and transport.

Is it ethical to sell honey for allergies?

For years, I tried to convince people that research describes no conclusive relationship between eating honey and relief from seasonal allergies. Despite medical websites that discredit the idea, you can find legions of people who swear by it. And they spend lots of money to buy the local honey they believe keeps them allergy-free.

It doesn’t matter if the honey came from the right area, the proper season, or how often the bees visited those plants. Nor does it matter if their allergies come from wind-blown pollen that bees never touch. It doesn’t even matter if the honey has no pollen at all. As long as it’s local honey (whatever that means), they are happy.

Several beekeepers have warned me to keep my opinions to myself: “I don’t want my customers over-thinking it,” they say. But honestly? It doesn’t matter. Those who want to believe local honey relieves their allergies are going to. No number of studies, logical arguments, or pollen analyses will make any difference.

On the other hand, I am astounded by some of the very explicit instructions I’ve read from beekeepers. I have a pamphlet that I picked up at a honey stand at a farmers’ market. It says, “For seasonal allergies, start with a small amount of honey, one teaspoon per day, taken in the morning hours. As your body builds up immunity, gradually increase the dosage to one tablespoon daily. Do not skip a dose.” Farther down, it claims that “Regardless of the source of your allergies, you can depend on clover honey to give you the best relief.” Right.

Apparently, it’s perfectly legal to make such claims, but the words sound like the spiel of a snake oil salesman. Should beekeepers be claiming medical knowledge and recommending dosages like a doctor?

My own answer to the ethics problem

Even if I can’t be part of the solution, I don’t want to be part of the problem. So, these days, I remain silent on the subject of allergies. I don’t try to talk people into it or out of it, and I never imply honey has any effect on allergies. No, no. But when someone tells me they buy it for their allergies, that’s fine. I nod and smile. When they tell me it works wonders for their aunt in Ontario, I don’t argue.

However, when someone asks me point blank if honey can relieve their allergies, I tell them what I think and why. Of course, it still makes no difference, so there’s no need to stash this article in your clothes hamper. Like horses led to water, you can’t make folks swallow your opinions.

Something is lost when we think of honey only as medicine.
Something is lost when we think of honey only as medicine.

Honey and the placebo effect

At the beginning of this article, I said that people who believe in the anti-allergy properties of honey should continue eating it. That’s not because I think it works but because I’m a believer in the placebo effect. People convinced that a cure will work often see an improvement in their health, even when a sugar pill substitutes for real medicine. And that, I think, is a good thing.

To me, allowing someone to believe what they want differs from peddling a questionable idea to someone still on the fence. But when people insist on viewing honey as medicine, I see it as a loss. Why? Because if someone told me I must eat a tablespoon of honey each day before noon, I would begin to hate it. I can hear the wicked witch cackle with delight, “Time to take your nasty medicine, my lovely!”

Wouldn’t it be refreshing if people went to a doctor for their allergies and went to the hive for a delicious, ethereal treat they could enjoy in any amount, at any time, without excuses, pretenses, or schedules? Wouldn’t it be great if we could all savor honey because of what it is instead of what it might do?

The idea that honey can treat allergies is a conflation of its nature and its utility into something more fanciful than real. In truth, honey is drop-dead miraculous, even if it can’t cure your allergies.

Notes and References

  1. Rajan, T., Tennen, H., Lindquist, R. L., Cohen, L., & Clive, J. (2002). Effect of ingestion of honey on symptoms of rhinoconjunctivitis. Annals of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology, 88(2), 198-203. https://doi.org/10.1016/S1081-1206(10)61996-5

  1. Brown, KV. 2023. Does honey really prevent seasonal allergies? Bloomberg, L.P. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/newsletters/2023-04-16/does-honey-really-prevent-allergies

  1. Nonotte-Varly C. (2016). Allergenicity of Gramineae bee-collected pollen is proportional to its mass but is highly variable and depends on the members of the Gramineae family. Allergologia et immunopathologia, 44(3), 232–240. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.aller.2015.05.003 [high amounts of grass pollen in pellets]

About Me

I backed my love of bee science with a bachelor’s degree in Agronomic Crops and a master’s in Environmental Studies. I write extensively about bees, including a current column in American Bee Journal and past columns in Two Million Blossoms and Bee Craft. I’ve endured multiple courses in melittology and made extensive identifications of North American bees for iNaturalist and other organizations. My master beekeeper certificate issued from U Montana. I’m also an English nerd. More here.


Discover more from Honey Bee Suite

Subscribe to get the latest posts sent to your email.

37 Comments

  • Hello, using the following as a reference:

    Immunology, the modern era
    https://youtu.be/G2UV0Ma1-yM
    The immune system will learn about foreign substances thanks to the whole digestive system.
    Once it has learnt, it will not treat an allergen in contact with mucosal surfaces (low alert) as the same as an allergen inside the body and bloodstream (very high alert).
    That is the hypothesis.

    Cheers, best regards, Diego.

  • It LOOKS like you’re labeling the second picture as common ragweed, rather than one of the many goldenrods. I don’t think you meant that. But the only thing I’m certain of is that it’s some kinda plant and not a honey bee.

    I can’t recall if it was my brother or my nibling (both in the Carolinas) who wanted some honey for allergy relief. I didn’t tell them that was nonsense, but I did say that IF it was going to work it would have to contain the same pollens they were allergic to, and if it contained the pollens they were allergic to, it would probably kill them, because my honey is so delicious that they would be overdosing on it.

    I did, however, send both of them some honey, and unless AI is answering my emails, it hasn’t killed anyone yet.

    • Yes, the picture is of goldenrod, but I mention ragweed first in the caption. This was obviously the wrong way to approach my point, but if I change it now, no one will know what all the comments refer to.

  • We sell raw honey, right off the frame. A number of people who use it state it actually works, also one customer states it relieves other symptoms as well. So for some people it does work, not everyone.

  • Well, my Lying Eyes saw my 6 yr old RSV-damaged son go from medications and not being able to sleep lying down in springtime to a normal unmedicated restful sleep once he began using our hives’ honey (in copious quantity) on his breakfast cereal. We knew nothing about any touted health effect-he just had a sweet tooth. I was a complete doubter until that happened. So there’s that.

  • Was it Mary Poppins who said “a spoonful of …. makes the medicine go down on most delightful way”?

    Honey, like bacon or a fried egg on top makes everything better. So even if you’re sneezing and puffy, a dollop of local honey just improves everything.

  • What you are calling the placebo I would call the will of the mind. I think people can will their bodies to do some things some of the time. Rub a raw onion on a wart and toss it over your shoulder and the wart will go away. Well it didn’t work for me but it works for some people. I think their mind can will that wart away and the belief is so strong it can happen. So if someone believes honey helps with their allergies it might work for them. I don’t have allergies so I don’t know. I asked my doctor once about this and I said there is no medical evidence to prove this. He said this means it hasn’t been studied so there is no evidence.

    Recently a friend retired from his optometry practice. A couple of months later I asked how he was liking retirement. He said he hates it. I don’t understand that but I have some hobbies and his was photography and it has become extinct for the most part. I think he willed his body to die. Shortly after that his body’s organs began to shut down. In a couple of months he was gone. I think he will that because he no longer wished to live. Now we can’t prove that either but it surely appears to be that way in some cases.

  • Wow, what a great tirade! I’m in complete agreement with what you’ve written here – right down to the live and let live ethics – but have never done much deep thinking or research to justify it. So thanks for that. (Like you I don’t suffer from allergies, which makes the whole thing a bit of an academic exercise in any case . . . .)

    • Thanks! I find the subject fascinating, but for a long time I was timid about approaching it. So much to learn.

  • The second photo to me looks like what I think is golden rod. The ragweed I catch my colonies collecting pollen from looks different from the photo.

  • A great article and I wholeheartedly agree with your own approach to those who believe in the miracle honey. What I add when asked about the pollen stuff is that honey can help the immune system and perhaps that might aid someone’s allergic rhinitis.

  • Rusty,

    For what it’s worth I agree with every word of your article and I take the same approach as you when selling honey at markets – not popular with my beekeeping friends.

    Would you mind if I use the article as something I can give out to customers? – it will be properly acknowledged as your article.

  • Hi Rusty, thank you as always for laying out the science for all to read! In a very clear, and entertaining way. And yes, honey is miraculous even tho it doesn’t “cure” allergies. My 87 year old mother eats a spoonful every day. She says it’s good for her and I believe the goodness is in her enjoyment of honey!

  • That picture of ragweed sure looks like goldenrod (solidago) to me. Ragweed pollen is wind borne, goldenrod is not. Many people confuse the two.

  • I began keeping bees as a hobby in 1962. If eating local raw honey cured seasonal allergies, I’d surely be cured by now. The only relief I’ve received for seasonal allergies has been from 5 years of injections by a very good allergist.

  • This is such a comprehensive look at this topic. Thanks Rusty.

    Shortly after I started beekeeping I discovered that honey as a cure for hay fever was a myth. I felt so smug with my new knowledge. However, like you, I continued to nod and smile when people asked me for my local honey because it relieved their allergies.

    Now, I think the time has come for me to take my allergy-afflicted customers seriously. I don’t need to deny the science, but simply accept that there can be some truth in peoples’ experiences. The placebo effect is one possible explanation. Sadly, honey does not help me at all. Perhaps I know too much for there to be any placebo effect.

    I heard Prof Tim Spector say on a BBC Radio 4 programme recently: ‘It seems that honey might well have health anti-allergy benefits. The best theory is it has an anti-inflammatory effect, and that it may also be presenting the local pollen allergen in a way that allows our gut microbes to recognise it as a harmless protein, thus avoiding an itchy nose.’

    I can’t say I understand that fully but I’m prepared to accept it is plausible, particularly coming from an epidemiologist.

    • Thanks, Archie. My husband, who has serious seasonal allergies, has been been eating my honey for decades. He says the real benefit to eating it is the taste of home, and that is enough.

  • Maceration of pollen for several hours in water or other liquids is recommended in order to improve digestibility, a method used also for other heavy digestible grain products. I consider this is a good advice for any pollen consumer.

    Very good article!

  • Recently, I happened to read thru a list of Yogi Berra sayings, and stashed a few new favorites on my desktop. I kept this one to toss into certain FB arguments, but it seems to apply here too:

    “There are some people who, if they don’t already know, you can’t tell ’em.” – Yogi Berra

  • I too have done the smile, nod and wish them well comments.

    I am amazed at how much of my honey seems to get purchased for medicinal purposes.
    Not just allergy relief as you mention but also “cold and flu” or “scratchy throat” symptoms. (If I feel sick I go get some tea and put your honey in it ….) I also have a few cancer survivors who have “changed their diets” and now consume large amounts of honey to avoid “sugar”. I also smile and say – “I’m glad it seems to help you.”

    Far be it from me to mess up any placebo effect benefits any of my “patients” may be experiencing. I actually do believe in that placebo effect – otherwise the medical community would not have to use it in controlled drug trials.

    One other one that is real but that I never hear is wound care. Honey is one of the only sterile things in nature – but we have triple antibiotic ointment at every CVS and RiteAid in the land.

  • Interesting article. I do not have allergies either but I have been known to spread this same story. Either way, yum! You get a sweet treat! On the same topic, my brother brought me a small jar of Melipona bee honey when he returned from a visit to the Yucatan. I heard there was medicinal qualities to the honey, but that could be old wives tales too. As always, you provide very informative and well researched articles, and I commend you for all that you do!

  • Good to learn but we have in formal beekeeper and and law income to purchase.. beetle blaster and banisher