Sweet as Mad Honey
Why would you use poison if you can kill with honey?
— Bosnian Proverb
by Sherri Talbot Honey has been a sweet treat for humans as long as we have written or drawn languages. With sugar and sweet things a rare treat for ancient mankind, even cave drawings have been found showing people attempting to gather the precious stuff from its tiny defenders.
Made from the nectar of whatever local plants happen to be in the area, honey can vary in color and taste depending on the flowers in bloom at any given time. But many flowers are poisonous to humans. How does that affect the honey? Can that poison carry through into the honey? In general, no. Most honey is made from a variety of flowers, and the chemicals that can make poisonous honey are often present in negligible amounts — if at all.
However, in the lore of the bee world, one can often find references to the mysterious “mad honey.” Mad honey is made exclusively from a certain species of rhododendron containing the chemical grayanotoxin. Unlike the honey in your local grocery store, mad honey is a brilliant red color. It is illegal in some countries and has been known to cause dizziness, nausea, and sometimes hallucinations. In larger doses, it causes fluctuations in blood pressure, cardiac issues, and seizures. In rare cases, it has been fatal.
The hives containing the golden poison are found high on the cliffs in Turkey or Nepal, where most rhododendron types having grayanotoxin grow. At least one website selling “true” mad honey claims the Nepal honey is stronger — and charges accordingly. However, the country of origin doesn’t make as much difference as the rhododendrons pollinated that year. The effects are due to the percentage of grayanotoxin, the exact nectar source, and the time of year.
Turkey and Nepal don’t have a monopoly on the famed substance. Cases have been reported in the United States as well. The most famous is probably an account of Union forces during the Civil War becoming ill after eating honey and showing the symptoms of Mad Honey poisoning. Cases of U.S. Mad Honey are rare, and under certain conditions, bees may have less access to other flowers to draw from. For example, suppose a frost killed all the flowers in a specific area except the rhododendron. In that case, the small amounts of grayanotoxin that would usually dilute with harmless pollens instead become that rare, poisonous sweet.
Mad honey is not a new discovery. Early written accounts involved its use in biological warfare. In areas like Turkey and Nepal — where mad honey is most commonly found — armies would eat the poisonous sweet and become incapacitated. They were often unable to march as sickness and hallucinations swept over the ranks. In some cases, this was unintentional — simply the army choosing to plunder the wrong hives. In other cases, the opposing forces planted hives known to contain mad honey where the approaching army would find them.
You would think that its use as a widespread poison would make it something to be avoided. Some believe it has medicinal value, even in the modern-day, varying from curing a sore throat to diabetes to erectile dysfunction. And, like any other mind-altering substance, there are those simply interested in its hallucinogenic properties. Consumers review it as a relaxing sedative in small amounts. (The given example was two teaspoons.) However, the portion between a relaxing high and a scary experience can be tiny. In one case, just one tablespoon more sent a husband and wife to the hospital with cardiac issues.
Despite this — or perhaps because of it — mad honey is one of the most expensive kinds of honey globally. Nepal Mad Honey currently sells on one website for about $70 (plus shipping and handling) for 500 grams or 3.5 ounces — slightly less than half a cup. To put that in context, we were able to find three ounces of the famed “Tupelo Honey” for $9.50. Manuka honey — scientifically tested to have actual health benefits — sells for about $20 for three ounces.
Changing one’s consciousness is part of human nature. Throughout history, humankind has done so with the use of animals, plants, and chemicals. Even religious chanting alters brain chemistry and body physiology. It is not surprising then that people risk the possibility of cardiac damage and seizures for a taste of something called “mad honey” — especially since it is easier to find information on the strangeness and mystery than its less-pleasant side effects.
After all, who isn’t drawn in by the allure of sweet madness?
What delusion has come over me? What sweet madness has seized me?
— Charlotte Bronte
Originally published in the February/March 2022 issue of Backyard Beekeeping and regularly vetted for accuracy.