Honey, they say, is the food of the gods. We agree.
Taste this amber liquid and it’s like you’ve transported yourself to the high heavens. No flavor equals that of honey. Scientists say bees have been around for 35 million years while we humans are just 1.5 million years old. The bees are still doing pretty much the same thing – pollinate the plants and green up the earth. Should all bees die off, life on earth would dry up in only about four years, Einstein said.
Honey's appeal never changed with the times. It stood staunchly consistent, ever health-giving, ever healing.
While reading about honey, my memories couldn't help going back to my boyhood days of the 1960s and 70s. In those hard times, we didn't have much access to modern medicines. So we mostly fell back upon traditional home remedies. Honey was as much medicine as it was food.
Honey spreads on our pu-tharo (flat rice bread) and toasts. We dipped our boiled shriew (yam) into it before a bite.
We always kept two types of honey at home: the normal type that we used as food, and the slightly darker, special medicinal honey or um-ngap rai as we called it. Some people call it um-ngap rykai or ryngkai.
When we fell sick, we took recourse to this honey. Whether it was coughs or colds, tummy-aches, burns or scrapes or injured eye, or chapped skin, honey came to the rescue. A tablespoonful of honey-turmeric-ginger-black pepper mix twice to thrice a day was enough to treat our coughs and colds. We downed tummy problems with honey and warm lemon-water mix.
When blemishes invaded our skins, honey, by itself or with a little lemon juice, banished them away. A spoonful of it a day put sneezing fits and hay fever at bay. Invariably we'd be as good as new in less than a couple of days.
Meghalaya's Um-ngap ryngkai is the special honey that’s made by bees of the stingless kind that belong to the Melipona and Trigona genera. A lot of research has gone into this class of bees and scientists now say that there are about 500 such species the world over.
All kinds of honey are good but some are more medicinal, like the honey from the stingless bees. In Meghalaya, the Garos call these bees mengkari. The Khasis call them by many names: ngap ryngkai, ngap rikai, ngap rai or ngap khyndew are some names. 'Ngap' means bee in Khasi and 'Um-ngap' is honey. Um-ngap ryngkai is expensive and highly prized mainly because of excellent healing properties.
These stingless bees have two distinguishing characteristics: they are all tiny—less than 5 millimeters in length and they build their hives in low heights, usually, 60 centimeters or less from the ground, such as on low hanging branches, hollows of tree trunks, hollowed out deadwood and crevices, even underground. Their honey production is quite small too— no more than 250-500 grams of honey a year. Though beekeepers have learned to domesticate them, they are really wild bees.
Stingless bees prefer warmer climates and lower altitudes where there's biodiversity in vegetation for foraging. Meghalaya's districts of West Khasi hills, Garo hills and Ri-Bhoi are the ideal habitats.
Like most bees ngap ryngkai have a flight radius of about 5 meters, gathering nectar and pollen from low-height wildflower blooms of the forest floor. They can enter into the tiniest of flowers which isn't possible for bigger bee species.
Meghalaya's forest floor abounds in hundreds of valuable medicinal plants, many of them small herbs, which are perfect foraging grounds for stingless bees. This is one reason why ryngkai honey, though less sweet than other kinds of honey, has great medicinal properties.
Stingless bees actually aren't stingless but their stingers are weak. These bees are highly evolved and can effectively defend themselves from predators through bites and secretions, even entering into the ears and nostrils of humans. They secrete a resinous substance, which is highly irritating to the skin, which they also use to seal and protect their hives from predator ants.
They are also effective pollinators. Where they thrive, the neighborhood around teems with life, which explains the lush growth of plants and herbs in Meghalaya's forests.
To produce 100 grams of honey bees must suck nectar from a million flowers! That's quite a lot of work for these tiny creatures which toil daily from dawn to dusk with never a day of rest in their short life span of not more than five weeks.
As the Food and Agriculture/World Health Organisations’ Food Code Codex Alimentarius has set minimum composition standards for honey. What's interesting is that, in a quality evaluation of honey from stingless bees obtained from Garo hills in Meghalaya by the Indian Council of Agricultural Sciences (ICAR), the contents were found to be above world standards. Only the ash content was lesser but experts say that can be increased by changing the harvesting season.
The table below shows the composition:
|1||Moisture||18.80 %||18 – 23 %|
|2||Ash||0.003 – 0.005 %||0.25 – 1.0 %|
|3||Water Soluble Solids||1.97 – 2.40 %||> 1.0 %|
|4||pH||4.43 – 4.49 at 21°C||3.2 – 4.5|
|5||Total Soluble Solids (Sugars)||76.85 -76.99 %||60 – 70 %|
|6||Acidity||0.87 -1.30 %||<50|
|7||HMF (hydroxyl methyl furfural)||0.05 – 17.70 mg/kg||≤80 mg/kg|
If honey is the food of the bees (and the gods) then it can surely be food for humans too.
Ngap ryngkai is more than food: it is precious medicine.
Working in fields and forests is fraught with hazards where injuries can happen and traumatize no end. The Khasis and Garos of Meghalaya knew about the medicinal value of honey from the stingless bees, especially in wound healing. Now science has also confirmed the rationale behind stingless bee honey's superior medicinal properties:
Again, some studies show that stingless bee honey might prove to be a better alternative to granulated sugar in the management of diabetes mellitus. Honey is a natural sweetener with a lower slightly lower glycemic index, that is, lower sugar percentage and it may promote higher levels of insulin and lower levels of blood sugar.
The honey's phenolic compounds are the sources of its antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, cardioprotective, antimutagenic and anticancer properties. Honey is bacteriostatic, that is, it prevents the growth of micro-organisms – bacteria, viruses, and fungi because of its low pH. The pH parameter is also very important as it influences the texture, stability and shelf life of honey.
Finally, all um-ngap ryngkai is raw. The processing is natural and heatless, which preserves the original compounds and beneficial live enzymes that give this stingless bee honey its powerful potency.
It makes perfect sense to give um-ngap ryngkai a place in your medicine cabinet.