Mad Honey of the Black Sea
View attachment 10473 A report from the Anatolian Journal of Clinical Investigation recently captured my attention. This particular case study involved a middle-aged man who had life-threatening symptoms caused by so-called mad honey from the Black Sea region. Intrigued, I began digging for more information and discovered that this mad honey, and its effects, have been known since ancient times.
In parts of the Black Sea region known as Pontus, the honey produced from the flowers of rhododendrons contains a high concentration of a chemical called grayanotoxin. Even though the honey has been used for centuries, it was not until 1891 that the actual toxic compound within it was identified as grayanotoxin, found in the rhododendrons and azaleas of the Black Sea region. The toxicity level of rhododendrons vary by species, and some a highly toxic, while others are inactive. Symptoms caused by eating the mad honey include dizziness, weakness, nausea, vomiting, low blood pressure, heart irregularities, and in severe cases, convulsions and death. Most victims however, recover within a few hours as the symptoms dissipate. It is very rare for anyone to become poisoned by ingesting the honey, but it does happen, and it seems that this local honey was used to at one time in warfare.
In the 5th century BC, Xenophon wrote about the effects of the mad honey in his chronicle, Anabasis. In 401 BC, Xenophon and his Greek army were in retreat from Babylon. When they arrived near Trabzon, they were enchanted by the area with its fresh fish readily available as well as woods that were filled with beehives. All was not as tranquil there as it seemed at first. Xenophon recounted, “All the soldiers who ate of the honeycombs lost their senses, seized with vomiting and purging, none of them being able to stand on their legs. Those who ate but a little were like men very drunk, and those who ate much like madmen, and some like dying persons. In this condition, great numbers lay on the ground, as if there had been a defeat. The next day, none of them died, but recovered their senses about the same hour as they were seized; and the third and fourth day, they go up as if they had taken a strong potion.”
A little over 300 years later, Xenophon's report was noticed by Kateuas, the chief advisor of King Mithridates. In 67 BC, Roman general Pompey and his troops were at war with King Mithridates of Pontus. With superior forces, Pompey seemed to have the upper edge, and Mithridates and his troops began retreating. As the opposing forces prepared to face off near Trabzon, Kateuas, perhaps remembering Xenophon's experience in the same area, made sure that their army did not eat the honey. However, Pompey's men feasted on the mad honey and went into drunken convulsions. Mithridates' army took advantage of the situation, and massacred their opponents.
Pliny the Elder (23-79 AD) mentioned the mad honey in his book, Natural History. He warns of the danger of eating toxic honey from the area of the Black Sea. “At Heraclia in Pontus, the honey is extremely pernicious in certain years, though it is the same bees that make it at other times. There is a certain plant, which, from the circumstance that it proves fatal to beasts of burden, and to goats in particular, has obtained the name of goat death, and the blossoms of which, steeped in the rains of a wet spring, contract most noxious properties. Hence it is not every year that these dangerous results are experienced. Persons, when they have eaten of it, throw themselves on the ground to cool the body, which is bathed in profuse perspiration.”
Natives of the area are familiar with the honey and its potential side effects. For generations, mad honey has been added to local alcoholic drinks in order to intensify the effects. Known as ‘deli bal' in Turkey, it was actually a major export to the European markets in the 18th century. Known as miel fou in Europe, during its heyday, 25 tons a year of the honey was sent and used in taverns across the continent.
Mad honey is not limited to Turkey. Cases show up occasionally in the Pacific Northwest region of the United States, as well as other areas of the world. Used in small doses, the honey can induce a light hallucinogenic state. However, overindulgence can bring on much more severe symptoms.
It should be noted that not all honey from the Black Sea region is mad honey. On the contrary, most of the honey produced in the area are of an excellent quality and taste. The mad honey is a very rare occurrence, but one that appears to have turned the tide in wartime. Who knew that something so sweet and delicious could have the ability to turn the tides of war?
01 September 2009, Tuesday