Manuka, Kanuka, and Red Clover Honey from New Zealand: Natural Antibacterial Healing Powerhouses 2

New Zealand produces some of the world's most potently antibacterial healing honeys. From the North and South Islands of New Zealand come honeys in three varieties, manuka, kanuka, and red clover. The three varieties of honey reflect the three types of plants bees use to make them.

  • Manuka honey is collected from the nectars and pollen of the mānuka tree, also known as the tea tree, the same tree that Australian natural products makers use to make tea tree oil. This low-growing tree, really a bush, is found on the western coasts of New Zealand's two major islands and on the southeastern coast of Australia. To be lawfully labeled as manuka honey, at least 70% of the pollen and nectar in the honey has to come from the manuka tree.
  • Kanuka honey is collected from the nectars and pollen of the kānuka tree, also known as the burgan tree or as the white-tea tree (even though white tea comes from another plant). This tree grows up to 30 feet (10 meters) tall and is one of the few plants that can live near hot springs and geysers. In the spring it is covered with white flowers that attract bees. There can be up to 30% kanuka pollen and nectar in manuka honey.
  • Red clover is the familiar pasture plant from which bees harvest pollen and nectar all over the world. Some manuka honey actually contains small amounts of nectar and pollen from red clover.

yellow honey in the combAll three kinds of honey are potent infection fighters, but manuka honey is the most powerful antiseptic of the three, followed by kanuka and red clover. When you see a product from New Zealand labeled as 100% manuka honey, chances are that it really is very close to 100% manuka honey, a small amount of of other kinds of honey inevitably finding their way into the product (there being no way to force bees not to visit other plants), but “manuka” honey brands may be slightly less potent because they contain slightly less manuka—but more than 70%.

What's so special about manuka honey? Over 120 studies confirm that it can fight bacterial infections in a unique way. Bacteria establish themselves by linking into a biofilm over the tissues on which they will feed. Manuka honey breaks up the biofilm so the individual bacteria are exposed to the action of the immune system, one white blood cell surrounding and engulfing just one bacterium at a time, the separation between the bacteria making it harder for them to pass genetic material from one germ to another so they become antibiotic-resistant.

There is no such thing, fortunately, as bacteria becoming honey-resistant. Manuka honey will always work in the same way, by physically breaking up the sticky film that holds colonies of bacteria in place. When bacteria becomes “planktonic,” creating a sea of bacteria on the skin, the immune system attacks them with inflammation. If bacteria are kept from accumulating to planktonic levels, if they are released from their biofilm, then the immune system can kill them without killing human tissues, one by one.

Manuka honey has a similar effect on some kinds of fungal infections. There have been extensive studies of how manuka honey fights Bacillus subtilis, E. coli, Pseudomonas, and Staphylococcus infections, resulting in scientists making these recommendations for using manuka honey successfully for wound control:

  • Manuka honey is a product you use on you,not in you. While this kind of honey is completely edible and has a distinctive herbal taste, the process of digestion breaks down most of the methylgloxal that researchers believe is its primary infection fighter.
  • Manuka honey does more to keep bacteria from multiplying than it does to kill them. Applying honey to a wound prevents the bacteria in and on it from taking over, but it does not kill them entirely. That is why it is necessary to change the dressing on a wound regularly and to apply fresh manuka honey.
  • When it comes to using manuka honey to prevent or treat infection, more is usually better. The immune system does the actual work of fighting the infection, but manuka honey makes it easier for white blood cells to pick off infectious bacteria one at a time.

Manuka honey is useful for dressing wounds caused by cuts, scrapes, burns, surgery, tattooing, and piercing. The sooner it is used after the skin is broken, the more it can do to prevent infection and scarring. Even 30% manuka honey stops bacterial growth, but even 100% red clover honey fails to have the same potency. Make sure the honey you use is New Zealand manuka honey, whether in the form of pure honey or honey-infused gauze and bandages.

About Andy Williams

Andy Williams, Ph.D., is a biologist with an interest in nutrition, natural heath & alternatives to pharmaceuticals. This site was created out of his interest in bees, an incredible social insect that offers us a range of natural health care products. Get our free Bees Daily newspaper delivered to your inbox.

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2 thoughts on “Manuka, Kanuka, and Red Clover Honey from New Zealand: Natural Antibacterial Healing Powerhouses

    • Andy Williams Post author

      I believe there is some confusion here between “Unique Manuka Factor,” which is a trademark applied to New Zealand honey, and the biological properties of the honey itself. The manuka bush is indeed the tea tree. That’s established in no fewer than 117 articles in the botanical literature. And the New Zealand tea tree is not only related to the Australian tea tree, DNA analysis, also in the published scientific literature, shows that the New Zealand plant originated in Queensland. There is less genetic diversity in the New Zealand strains of the plant, but that works to the advantage of honey collectors in this case.

      As a practical matter, if you are getting manuka honey, it comes from New Zealand, but there is no inherent biological reason you couldn’t get the same benefits from somewhere else. It’s just that the honey industry is very sophisticated and very dedicated to maintaining high quality standards in New Zealand. It’s not a biological principle.

      It’s an economic principle. It’s a matter of well-placed trust.

      As for your comment on only using medicinal grade honey, you aren’t saying that other New Zealand honey is inferior, are you? Of course, it’s best to use medicinal grade honey. It’s been tested for contaminants. It’s what you’ll get in bandages and swabs. But other manuka honey isn’t going to hurt you. It’s sticking your finger in the jar and slathering the honey over your skin that would be the problem, not the manuka honey itself, if it is indeed manuka honey. If it’s certified for Unique Manuka Factor, it indeed is.