Locally produced balm sweetens
sea turtles’ recovery at Gumbo Limbo
an ill adult loggerhead turtle, at Gumbo Limbo Nature Center.
The honey speeds healing and fights infection in wounds.
Photos by Tim Stepien/The Coastal Star
Related story: Meet Gumbo Limbo's "turtle whisperer" photographer
By Stacey Singer DeLoye
The gash on the loggerhead sea turtle’s forehead exposes bone, and apparently it hurts. Turtle expert Caitlin Bovery is patting a sticky mixture of honeycomb and raw honey atop its wound, causing the slow creature to recoil.
“You see how he’s pulling away, that’s indicative of pain,” says Bovery, the sea turtle rehabilitation assistant coordinator at Gumbo Limbo Nature Center in Boca Raton.
The staff at Gumbo Limbo named this gentle fellow Blitzen, because of his arrival Christmas Eve. A homeowner in Hutchinson Island noticed the turtle listing aimlessly along the beach and phoned the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. State biologists found it unable to submerge, a sign of illness, and covered in barnacles, a sign it hadn’t been moving for a long time. Its plastron, or lower plate, was concave, a sign it had stopped eating quite some time ago.
Blitzen clearly needed medical help. The nearest turtle hospital was the Loggerhead Marinelife Center in Juno Beach, but there was no room at that inn. Gumbo Limbo volunteered.
For the past month, Blitzen has been fed an ample diet of squid, fish and medicine to help his digestive system recover. His barnacles were removed, and now his shell needs to heal. Dressing sea turtle wounds takes time, especially when the turtle weighs 120 pounds.
Honey’s help long known
Bovery squeezes a generous swirl of dark honey onto the turtle’s shell and fins and gently massages it into cracks and crevices. Her warm, gloved hands seem to soothe the creature. The honey isn’t a pain reliever, though. The honey rub is meant to protect the loggerhead’s wounds, speed healing and fight infection. The turtle is left in a drained tank for about a half hour to allow the honey to work its magic.
Honey has been used by humans for centuries to treat lung infections, digestive problems, open wounds, burns and infected skin. Cleopatra used it as a beauty treatment. Egyptian and Roman soldiers may have bound their wounds with it. In the modern antibiotic era, though, its medicinal use has waned in favor of sterile antiseptic ointments.
As germs gain resistance to some antibiotics, honey is attracting new attention from scientists. A 2011 study in the scientific journal PLOS One found certain medical-grade honeys killed off dangerous pathogens, including a strain of notorious supergerm MRSA after exposure for 24 hours.
The honey did this by producing an enzyme that converts glucose into germicidal hydrogen peroxide, and by changing the acidity of the wound, producing a toxin called methylglyoxal. It also contained an antifungal and antiviral compound called Defensin-1, the study found.
Bovery says Gumbo Limbo started routinely using honey on injured turtles about three years, ago, with success.
“We’ve seen really good regeneration on these loggerheads since we started using honey on the wounds,” Bovery added.
Honey helps boost fluid movement through wounds, flushing away toxins and moving in nutrients and other healing factors, but that same property means it must be reapplied often. And depending on the plants from which the honey is produced, it may contain different amounts of other useful compounds. A well-studied New Zealand honey called manuka, for example, is rich in the fatty acid DHA.
But all honey isn’t equal. Its hydrogen peroxide-producing properties are wiped out by exposure to heat, making most grocery store honey unhelpful for medicinal purposes. In fact, most crystal-clear grocery store honey is barely honey. It has been filtered and heated during processing and handling, destroying most of the healing enzymes and removing useful particles like pollen and beeswax.
At Gumbo Limbo, the turtle caretakers prefer to use dark, raw honey from local beekeepers, Bovery says. That honey isn’t cheap, however. It sells for about $12 a pint retail. Bovery can use up an entire squeeze bottle treating one turtle on one occasion. Gumbo Limbo rehabilitates about 100 turtles a year.
The nature center recently put out a call for honey donations. The Palm Beach County Beekeepers Association and the Hani Honey Co. in Stuart have helped fill the need, but more donations are welcome, Bovery said.
Blitzen’s condition is improved, but he still has a long recovery ahead. He’s gaining weight again, and his plastron isn’t concave anymore. With barnacles removed from his shell, he’s able to submerge again. Recovery will take several months, though.
“He didn’t get this sick overnight, and he’s not going to get well overnight,” Bovery says. The honey will help.
Sometime in the spring or summer, Bovery predicts, a totally healed Blitzen will be microchipped and tagged, then taken out to the Gulf Stream, to return to his life of crunching mollusks and slurping jellyfish out in the open sea.
Gumbo Limbo Nature Center accepts donations of raw, uncooked, unfiltered honey at 1801 N. Ocean Blvd. in Boca Raton. Call 544-8605 for more information.