When bees feed on the pollen of rhododendron flowers, the resulting honey can become a hallucinogenic punch.
It’s called “mad honey”, and it has a slightly bitter taste and a reddish color. More notably, a few types of rhododendrons, among them Rhododendron luteum and Rhododendron ponticum, contain grayanotoxin, which can cause serious physiological reactions in humans and animals. Depending on how much a person consumes, reactions can range from hallucinations and a slower heartbeat to temporary paralysis, but also unconsciousness, dizziness, hypotension and atrial-ventricular block.
However, rhododendrons flourish at high altitudes, and the bees often nest on sheer cliffs, so gathering the honey may be more dangerous than consuming it. In Nepal, honey hunters make dangerous vertical climbs, while enduring stings from enormous bees, to harvest mad honey.
For centuries the Kulung people of eastern Nepal have remained separate from the outside world thanks to the dense jungle surrounding their home in a deep gorge carved by the Hongu River. Much of this area, isolated and remote, is still a mystery, even to Kulung hunters. The Kulung people have used the honey for centuries as a cough syrup and an antiseptic, and the beeswax has found its way into workshops in the alleys of Kathmandu, where it is used to cast bronze statues of gods and goddesses.
But eating the mad honey can be an unpleasant venture too: one of the earliest accounts comes from Xenophon of Athens, a student of Socrates, describes a company of Greek soldiers in 401 B.C. passing through Turkey: “but the swarms of bees in the neighborhood were numerous, and the soldiers who ate of the honey all went of their heads, and suffered from vomiting and diarrhea, and not one of them could stand up, but those who had eaten a little were like people exceedingly drunk, while those who had eaten a great deal seemed like crazy, or even, in some cases, dying men. So they lay there in great numbers as though the army had suffered a defeat, and great despondency prevailed. On the next day, however, no one had died, and at approximately the same hour as they had eaten the honey they began to come to their senses; and on the third or fourth day they got up, as if from a drugging”
Interestingly, also modern consumers describe similar effects from too much mad honey.
Later, in 69 B.C., Roman soldiers weren’t so lucky. It was recorded that in Trabzon, Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (Pompey the Great) and his Roman army were chasing King Mithridates of Pontus and his Persian army along the Black Sea. Pompey the Great’s army fell victim to a literal honeytrap in the same region. Local forces placed honey along the marching route, and then swooped in to massacre the intoxicated soldiers.
Mad honey has non-culinary uses too.
Turkey and Nepal, the epicenters of it production, have traditionally cultivated the honey as medicine and, it’s touted as relieving hypertension, providing a burst of energy, and being a sweet substitute for Viagra.
As a result, it ranks among the most expensive honeys in the world: It sells for $60 to $80 dollars a pound (roughly six times the price of regular Nepali honey) on the black markets of some Asian countries, several of which have very strict anti-drug laws.
Mad honey can be purchased in the regions of Nepal and Turkey where it is produced, typically from the beekeepers themselves, but it is also available online.
Images from web – Google Research