Mad Honey — Could Be Fun, Could Be Fatal - 27 East


Residence / 2230450

Mad Honey — Could Be Fun, Could Be Fatal


The Accidental Beekeeper

  • Publication: Residence
  • Published on: Feb 8, 2024
  • Columnist: Lisa Daffy

According to the Atlas Obscura, one of my favorite spots on the web to find utterly useless yet fascinating information, honey was actually used as a tool of war way back in 69 B.C. It seems the army of Pompey the Great was marching through Turkey when they came upon pots of the tempting sweet stuff along their route. I’m sure they were delighted by their good fortune — but not for long. What they had found was actually “mad honey.” It had been placed there deliberately by local forces, and after eating it, the soldiers became disoriented and unable to stand, some even vomited and had diarrhea. In this state they were an easy target for their enemy, who swooped in to massacre them.

The honey in question wasn’t toxic because the Turkish soldiers poisoned it, but simply as a result of the diet of the bees that produced it. Mad honey is created when bees dine on the nectar of rhododendrons, or their close relatives, azaleas. Lovely as they are to look at, the leaves and flowers of these shrubs are all at least a little bit toxic. Poison control experts say it’s extremely unlikely for serious poisoning to occur when just small pieces of a plant are swallowed, although the danger is much higher for pets than for people.

In our area, these shrubs are largely outnumbered by hundreds of other flowering plants that bloom around the same time as they do. Our bees may bring some of their nectar and pollen back to the hive, but in terms of volume, local honey isn’t going to have enough of the toxin in it to even be noticeable. In parts of the Mediterranean region, rhododendrons and azaleas are much more prolific, with large areas where they’re pretty densely packed, especially up at higher elevations. Honeybees in those areas often produce honey with high levels of grayanotoxins, the chemicals that make the honey “mad.” Those same chemicals also give the honey a reddish color and a smoky flavor.

And while it’s not surprising that people would find a way to use it to kill each other, other uses of mad honey throughout history have generally been more benign, if a little questionable. In various times and places, it’s been used as an aphrodisiac, as a treatment for gastrointestinal disorders and to remedy high blood pressure. It’s also known for its mild hallucinogenic properties, making it attractive to those who like to dabble in mind-altering substances like LSD and psychedelic mushrooms. Probably because of its rarity, mad honey’s effects haven’t been studied as broadly as those more common hallucinogens, but users have described the experience as mildly euphoric and enhancing concentration.

Turkey and Nepal are the main producers of mad honey, with honey hunters in Nepal scaling mountain peaks to gain access to the cliff ledges under which Himalayan giant honeybees build their nests. Hunters set a fire on the ground below the nests to smoke the bees away, then use rope ladders with wooden rungs to get to the nests. This isn’t a job for the faint of heart, but it’s apparently profitable enough to make the risks worth it. An 8-ounce jar of honey with the highest levels of grayanotoxins available sells for upward of $400 online, and although it is a legal substance in the U.S., it’s not like you can check with the FDA to make sure you’re getting what you pay for.

Unfortunately, the side effects of taking too much of it — more than a spoonful or two — can include cardiac issues, trouble breathing, convulsions, dizziness, disorientation and blurry vision, in addition to the aforementioned vomiting and diarrhea.

Fatalities from mad honey poisoning are extremely rare, although a few have been documented. But frankly, the other potential side effects sound pretty off-putting to me. I think I’ll just stick to the sweet stuff my girls produce, less adventurous though it may be.

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