Honey has written itself into human cultural history in several disparate ways, perhaps the most interesting of which is the convergent history of ‘mad honey’, hallucinogenic honey which is consumed all over the world. different cultures incorporated mad honey into their society at different times in human history.
Today, scientific papers on the subject of ‘mad honey’ are still being published in major academic journals. One group of scientists produced a study which investigated the natural neurotoxins present in mad honey, while another group of researchers found that topical administrations of ‘mad honey’ improved wound healing rates in rats. Scientific questions are being asked of a substance which has been incorporated into human historical narratives for thousands of years. The result is a clear indication that the effects, consequences and benefits of eating mad honey are still not completely understood.
Mad honey is found throughout Eurasia. The honey is a product of bees which pollinate various rhododendron species, all of which contain a neurotoxin named Grayanotoxin. The effects of mad honey on humans has been described in relative detail. consumers can suffer from fevers, stomach pains, hallucinations, as well as vomiting and nausea. Despite the known risks, people have continuously harvested mad honey from Nepali mountainsides, thee products of which are sold on a large medical supplement market in Asia.
Honey as a Poisonous Temptation
Modern clinicians estimate that a low number of people require hospitalization after consuming the product in high volumes. Yet, the history of mad honey begins in the west, with the Greek general Xenophon’s (430–355BCE) account of his campaign in Turkey. Honey holds a significant place in Ancient Greek mythology. As the food of the gods, it’s role in the house of Zeus on Mt Olympus was mirrored by its importance as a sweetener in everyday ancient life. There was no such thing as sugar in the Northern Mediterranean, thus honey was revered along with ripe fruit as a luxury. Historians have to dismantle their image of modern-day tourist hot spots in Greece and Turkey so that they can understand how Xenophon’s troops would have been so keen to consume honey on the march. Mad honey, once eaten, caused large swathes of Xenophon’s army to be crippled by stomach cramps and delirium at Trabzon on the Black Sea coast. In the ancient Mediterranean the use of poisonous plants and foods as biological weapons was not uncommon, and the aim of many of the tacticians who used mad honey to their advantage was to immobilize and cripple opponents.
Grayanotoxins and honey bees
Recent studies have suggested that grayanotoxins are also toxic for some bees. In these laboratory studies, honey bees fed syrup laced with field-realistic doses of grayanotoxin were twenty-times more likely to die than those fed undoctored syrup 5.
Note that this does not necessarily mean that honey bees foraging in the natural environment are twenty-times more likely to die.
The laboratory experiments effectively ‘force-fed’ bees syrup containing the toxin. Toxicity was monitored 6 hours post feeding. Perhaps they were hungry and, having no choice, ate the stuff 6 and consequently poisoned themselves.
In the natural environment there are probably a wide range of nectars available simultaneously. Perhaps the bees simply change their diet and choose these nectars instead?
I don’t think that this has been formally tested. At least, not yet.
It might be an interesting experiment to conduct. You could set up a feeding station with syrup, train the bees to use this sugar-rich source and then add grayanotoxins to the syrup. If the bees continue to gorge themselves on the toxin-laced syrup (and showed increased mortality) then they presumably either can’t taste the grayanotoxin or can, but don’t care 7.
Alternatively, they might switch away from the toxin-laced syrup and use other plant and tree nectars and, in doing so, not jeopardise their longevity.
Although this experiment hasn’t been conducted, we do have evidence that honey bees forage on nectar from rhododendron.
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