The Tales Of Mad honey

In 401 B.C the Greek general Xenophon reports in “The Anabasis” that when he was leading 10,000 Greek soldiers back home after fighting with Persia. A mystifying event befell them while they were crossing the Black sea region. The soldiers set the camp to rest and look for food. They saw swarming bees in the jungle they hunted their honey and enjoyed the feast but after sometime they started behaving madly as Xenophon said “like intoxicated madmen”. The situation soon became chaotic and a “great despondency prevailed” for several days. He never knew the mystery behind it. 

m2In 77-79 A.D a Roman naturalist Pliney the elder published Natural history in which he glorified the qualities of good honey and warned against mad honey or raving honey from the Black sea coast. He talked about this special honey having harmful effects especially in a gradual or subtle way .He was the first to attribute toxicity to Rhododendrons.

Natural history is an early encyclopaedia. It is one of the largest single works to have survived from the Roman Empire to the modern day and claims to cover all ancient knowledge.

It took a long time for modern sciences to catch up with Pliny. The encyclopaedia of Britannica in 1929 mocked at the very idea of poisoned honey “In all likelihood the symptoms described by the old writers were due to overeating or eating honey on empty stomach.” Thus rejected the idea of mad honey. But later when again and again at different times hungry soldiers in war reported similar encounters with mad honey then it finally led the scientists to try to understand the toxic process.

Almost 4 centuries after the Xenophon’s incident the Roman general Pompey with his army was campaigning against the Mithridates in the same region of Black sea. The geographer Stabbo describes how Mithridats allies planted toxic honey combs in route of Pompey and three of his squadrons got lured and trapped by honey comb trick. They consumed the honey and under its influence they were brutally slaughtered.

In 1875 J.Grammer a former confederate surgeon recorded in “Gleaning in bee culture” numerous incidents in which southern soldiers were intoxicated by mad honey.He described the same symptoms and effects which were experienced by Xenophon’s soldiers like initially having tinglish sensations all over the body then blurred vision and finally dizzy feelings and awful nausea. The J.Grammer wrote “the soldiers were left with no voluntary muscle control and seemed entirely over powered and dead drunk”.


The Modern toxicological studies identifies Graynotoxins present in Rhododendrons ponticum flowers as a breathing inhibitor and hypnotics that acts heavily on the central nervous system.

In 1891 a German scientist P.C Plugge isolated a poisonousness compound in honey now called “Acetylandromedole” a type of “Grayanotoxin” which are a group of closely related toxins found in“Rhododendrons” plant which cause the poisonousness in honey.

The mad honey collected by wild bees from the nectar of Rhododendron ponticum makes the honey toxic and its main effects are said to be hallucinations, dizziness, cardiac disorders and nausea.

It has also been found that people living around the regions of the Black sea have been using the mad honey for centuries as a drug, medicine and war weapon. A spoonful of toxic honey is a traditional tonic. By mixing a small amount of it in alcohol it gives an extra effect. It is also used as a pain killer but depending on the size of the doze.

The wild bees that make honey from nectar of certain species of Rhododendron flowers are naturally immuned to the effects of toxicity present in the flower. These wild bees are also called Himalayan cliff honey bees. They are the world’s largest honey bees and the only bees which produce mad honey.

In the late 18th century mad honey become a major export of Black sea. 25 tons of honey was shipped to Europe each year to be added in drinks and for selling purposes.The mad honey is commonly found in the Black sea region of Turkey and Nepal Himalayan belt. It has often been reported that it is red in colour .The wholesale price of mad honey is 5 times the price of regular honey.

Generations of Nepali tribes on the mountain belt have been harvesting the mad honey.

They hunt the wild honey from deadly rocks and cliffs by climbing with ropes and wooden ladder and collect the honey with the help of bamboo sticks in a basket lowered down by companions from far away. Although mad honey hunting is dangerous and deadly hunting game .Many villagers lost their lives in this process. The rest of the teammates of honey hunters carve the name of deceased on the mountain or stone to pay tribute.Japan, Korea and Hong Kong are the biggest importers of mad honey.

Amazingly the techniques used by Nepali tribes till now for mad honey hunting are same as of Stone Age era as it is depicted in rock art found.



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