Honey that is toxic to bees and/or humans is typically referred to as poisonous honey.
What Is Poisonous Honey?
Honey can be poisonous due to pesticides, the type of nectar and pollen collected, as well as due to fermentation. While poisonous honey can be dangerous to humans as well as bees, many people consume poisonous honey for religious or cultural reasons, or as traditional medicine or remedy.
The side effects from consuming poisonous honey range from mild to severe, and can last from a few hours to days or more.
How Does Honey Become Poisonous?
Honey can become poisonous due to the bees harvesting certain types of pollen, such as from the plants that contain grayanotoxins, including flowers from the genera Rhododendron, Pieris, Agarista and Kalmia.
In areas that have an abundance of poppy plants, some honey has been found to contain morphine. Honey can also become poisonous due to fermentation, if the nectar has not been sufficiently condensed into honey, and the water content remains too high.
Sometimes bees are poisoned by insecticides and pesticides used on and around crops, and those chemicals can end up in the honey that the bees produce. While the levels of pesticides in honey are typically not high enough to have a significant impact on human health, they can be devastating to bees, and often cause entire hives to die.
Where Does Poisonous Honey Come From?
Poisonous honey can come from all over the world; there is more than one type of poisonous honey. The most common areas poisonous honey may come from include Nepal and Turkey, where poisonous honey holds cultural significance.
In Turkey, poisonous honey is sometimes used recreationally or as part of traditional medicine. In Nepal, locals risk their lives to obtain the poisonous honey with intoxicating effects that can be found at the tops of perilous cliffs.
How Is Poisonous Honey Produced?
Poisonous honey is produced when bees collect nectar from sources that are poisonous either to them, or to humans, and create honey with the poisonous nectar. Alternatively, poisonous honey can be produced by honey bees collecting harmless types of nectar and not reducing the water content enough, causing the honey to ferment over time (very rare).
Most honey today are heat-treated, this is to stop fermentation and make the honey strainable. Poisonous honey can contain harmful compounds due to insecticides sprayed on the plant, from the plants themselves being poisonous, or due to chemical processes after the honey is stored in the hive.
Some people ferment honey after it has been collected; honey containing alcohol can be created by bees, or people may add water and/or yeast to harvested honey to create an alcoholic drink called “mead.”
How Do Bees Produce Poisonous Honey?
Bees produce poisonous honey in a variety of ways. The moment the honey bee collects the nectar it is mixed with an enzyme within the bees mouth. The enzyme itself is known as invertase or the “bee enzyme” which is secreted from the bee’s glands.
When the honey bees return to the hive they will pass the nectar they have collected between themselves further mixing the nectar with the “bee enzyme”.
When the bees go to store the honey in the honeycomb, if the moisture content is too high, the honey will eventually ferment. When the bees eat the honey, either in the winter or as needed, they will become “drunk,” unable to control their movements as they should, and may even be unable to fly.
Best Poisonous Plants for Honey Bees
When bees create poisonous honey containing grayanotoxins, the nectar and pollen they collect, as well as the honey is not poisonous to them; only to humans.
The best poisonous plants for honey bees are the plants in the family Ericaceae, particularly rhododendrons, which produce a lot of nectar and pollen.
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The Best Environment for Producing Poisonous Honey
Areas that tend to produce poisonous honey intentionally include Nepal and Turkey, where different types of poisonous honey hold significance culturally, religiously, or in traditional medicine.
People in Turkey, Nepal, and parts of China have been known to consume poisonous honey recreationally as well.
Rhododendron Nectar Impact on Bees
A study was conducted by the Royal Botanic Gardens – Kew, on effects of bees consuming rhododendron nectar. They found that the buff-tailed bumblebees (Bombus terrestris) after 30 days of feeding on nectar containing the grayanotoxins at natural levels, the bumblebees were fine.
However, when the rhododendron nectar was fed to honey bees they died in a matter of hours. This is highly surprising considering honey bees (Apis mellifera) frequently make honey from the rhododendron in Turkey.
Testing the rhododendron nectar against a third species, the mining bee (Andrena scotica), the results showed it was harmful to this species too but not fatal. Whilst it didn’t increase mortality in the mining bee, it severely affected their normal behaviours important for foraging.
These included time spent flying and increased time spent grooming, as well as showing other symptomatic behaviours associated with toxicity.
What Happens If You Eat Poisonous Honey?
Despite poisonous honey causing a wide range of symptoms, it is extremely rare to die from consuming any type of poisonous honey.
Honey containing grayanotoxins is produced by bees who collect nectar and pollen from plants in the family Ericaceae, and since rhododendrons are a type of Ericaceae, when people become sick from this type of honey it is sometimes called “rhododendron poisoning.”
Eating honey that contains grayanotoxins can cause side effects, including nausea, vomiting, loss of consciousness, convulsions, hypotension, dizziness, blurred vision, heart arrhythmia, and more. Despite the long list of side effects, eating poisonous honey rarely ends in death, and it is often consumed recreationally or as a traditional medicine.
Historical Uses of Poisonous Honey
There have been times where poisonous honey has severely crippled armies and used as a weapon.
Below we’ve outlined four interesting events of this happening.
The first example dates back to 401 BC when the ancient Greek commander Xenophon was leading his 10,000 strong army comprised of predominantly Greek mercenaries back from Persia. He had set up camp in Pontus (Northeast Turkey) near the black sea coast when his men found and consumed large amounts of wild honey.
The wild poisonous honey caused Xenophon soldiers to suddenly behave like crazed madmen and many of them collapsed. Unfortunately for Xenophone, his entire army was paralyzed and incapacitated for days, which left him vulnerable to potential enemy attacks.
Thankfully his men recovered after a few days, rested in the city of Trapezus and before returning home to Greece.
The second example wasn’t as lucky at Xenophon’s army. It occurred during the Third Mithridatic War (73 to 63 BC), which was the last and longest of the three Mithridatic Wars between Pontus and the Roman Republic. The Roman general Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, otherwise known as Pompey the Great travelled through the same area where Xenophon’s army had engorged on the mad honey.
Only this time, Pompey’s enemies had planted poisoned honeycombs along their route. Naturally, the roman soldiers feasted on the honey. This led to one thousand Roman soldiers being rendered incapacitated/inert from consuming the poisonous honey. Once poisoned, they were ambushed and slaughtered by the army of Mithridates VI.
The third example isn’t directly consuming the honey from the hive, instead, fermenting the mad honey with water, flavouring it with various fruits and spices; creating poisoned mead. In 946 AD, Saint Olga of Kiev after already exterminating much of the Drevian ruling class hatched a plan to slaughter the rest of the Drevians.
She announced that she would be soon arriving at the Drevian capital of Iskorosten and asked them to prepare a funeral feast so that everyone could mourn the death of her husband (Igor of Kiev who died at the hands of the Drevians).
Of course, the mead supplied to them from her allies was in fact poisoned honey mead. Which 5,000 consumed and when they were inert and collapsed Olga’s soldiers slaughtered all 5,000.
The final example of weaponising poisoned honey mead was in 1489 AD.
A Russian army abandoned their camp and deliberately left numerous casks of poisoned honey mead behind. Of course, when the Tatars found the abandoned camp, they consumed the poisoned mead, the Russians returned and slaughtered the 10,000 Tatars who were incapacitated by the casks of mead.
Poisonous Honey Key Points
|Mead||Medicinal Use||Cultural Significance|
|Mead can be made by fermenting honey.||There are studies being conducted to understand how “mad honey” lowers blood pressure and heart rate, and poisonous honey is used as a traditional medicine in Turkey.||The Gurung tribe in Nepal harvest honey that contains grayanotoxins by climbing dangerous cliff faces.|
|There is historical documentation that shows purposely fermenting honey to create mead goes back thousands of years.||Other cultures also use different types of poisonous honey, for a variety of medicinal purposes.||The effects of poisonous honey have been documented by classical authors, such as Xenophan, Aristotle, Stralla and more.|
Poisonous Honey vs Other Raw Honeys
Poisonous honey is used in some parts of the world for its hallucinogenic and intoxicating effects.
Some parts of the world believe that certain kinds of poisonous honey act as an aphrodisiac.
In Turkey, poisonous honey is sometimes used in traditional medicine, which is why most of the poisonous honey that is produced purposely can be found there.
Whereas other raw honeys will contain benefits such as healing wounds and burns, being rich in antioxidants, potentially lowering triglycerides, relieving cold and cough symptoms, preventing acid reflux and reducing the duration of diarrhoea.
Poisonous Honey as an Antiseptic
Poisonous honey does not have the same antiseptic qualities as other types of honey, however it is sometimes used medicinally, albeit controversially.
Grayanotoxins in poisonous honey do have an effect on the cardiovascular system and may lower blood pressure and heart rate, however the side effects are too dangerous for this to be considered beneficial and include vomiting, sweating, impaired consciousness, and even convulsions.
When You Should Avoid Poisonous Honey
It is advised that should avoid poisonous honey at all times.
Poisonous honey, which some people consume recreationally for hallucinogenic or other intoxicating properties, can have side effects that can make you sick for hours to days.
While fatalities from poisonous honey are exceedingly rare in humans, pets and other animals have been known to die after consuming poisonous honey.
Is Poisonous Honey Vegan?
The Vegan Society do not consider honey vegan, this includes cornflower honey. They believe that because some honey farmers replace honey with a sugar substitute when harvesting, it will naturally lack the essential micronutrients of honey, thus being detrimental to the honey bees.
Furthermore, they believe that in conventional beekeeping, honey bees are specifically bred to increase productivity. Which they believe leads to a narrowing of the population gene pool and increases susceptibility to disease and large scale die-offs.
They also believe that many honey farmers will cull their hives post-harvest and clip the queen bee’s wings to stop them from leaving to start a new colony. Thus the Vegan Society does not consider honey vegan. That, of course, doesn’t stop some vegans arguing its fine if they source their honey from reliable sources that do not practice the above.
The Popularity of Poisonous Honey
The popularity of poisonous honey dates back thousands of years and is consistent across many cultures, countries, and areas of the world. Drinking fermented honey, as well as consuming honey with other poisonous compounds that may include neurotoxins or hallucinogens, has made poisonous honey culturally significant in many areas of the world.
Poisonous honey that has hallucinogenic effects is sometimes used in cultural or religious ceremonies, as well as recreationally.
Poisonous Honey Expensive?
Poisonous honey is considered expensive. Certain suppliers charge nearly $100 per 100g of mad honey, otherwise known as poisonous honey.