The old saying that you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar may also apply to bacteria. Researchers at the University of Wales Institute Cardiff have been exploring how honey limits bacterial growth in wounds for the several years. Their most recent findings were presented at this month's Microbiologists' Spring Conference in Harrogate.

The researchers found that honey interferes with bacterial attachment to tissues. Bacteria that are unable to attach to tissue are washed away and can't cause an infection.

Exposure to manuka honey alters the cellular proteins produced by MRSA.

Previous research found that honey also helps to break up bacterial biofilms and prevent their formation. Biofilms are sticky masses of bacteria that are hard to penetrate, prevent healing of wounds and are highly resistant to antibiotics. The researchers liken biofilms to "the sort of slime you get round a sink plughole."

This adds up to the idea that topical treatment of wounds with honey can both prevent the development of infections and help clear up infections that are already present.

Many traditional remedies for treating wounds contain honey. But there has been little previous investigation of how honey helps prevent wound infection or even if it's capable of doing so. The researchers at Cardiff have found that honey does indeed interfere with bacterial growth in several ways and have been trying to elucidate the molecular mechanisms behind this.

Some doctors are reluctant to accept honey as a reputable wound treatment because its mechanism of action is not known.

In their studies, the researchers used manuka honey. Manuka honey is formed from the nectar of flowers of the manuka tree, also known as the tea tree. The plant is a shrub-like tree found throughout New Zealand and in parts of Australia. Manuka honey is darker than the more common clover honey and is an ingredient in certain modern licensed wound-care products.

Previous research by the group found that manuka honey can make MRSA (methicillin resistant Staphylococcus aureus) more sensitive to antibiotics such as oxacillin. It has also shown that exposure to manuka honey alters the cellular proteins produced by MRSA. One particular protein, FabI, seemed to be completely missing in treated cells. FabI is a protein needed for fatty acid biosynthesis and its absence may alter the structure of the bacterial cell wall, interfering with bacterial ability to attach to tissues in wounds.

Other work by the group has shown that treatment with honey also inhibits the growth of Group A Streptococci and Pseudomonas species. Both are bacteria capable of causing serious infections.

Currently, antibiotics are the most common antimicrobial treatment for wounds. They're not always effective and they have side effects. And the more often antibiotics are used, the more widespread bacterial resistance to them becomes. Alternative treatments are badly needed. The ability of honey to both help prevent infections and clear up existing ones makes it an intriguing option. Even when antibiotics are needed, treatment of wounds with honey may help the antibiotics work better.

The researchers' findings were presented at the Society for General Microbiology's Spring 2011 conference in Harrogate, England. At the time of this writing, the findings have not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal. The conference was held April 11-14.