When a middle-aged couple decided to improve their sex life, they spent a week in 2008 eating raw honey gathered from near Turkey's Black Sea — and then ended up in the hospital with symptoms that mimicked heart attacks. The culprit? Mad honey poisoning, a little-known destroyer that has brought down ancient armies and, in modern times, been rumored to have a hallucinatory effect that increases sexual performance.
Mad honey is produced by bees that ingest the nectar of Rhododendron ponticum and other poisonous plants that grow in Japan, Nepal, Brazil, parts of North America, Europe, and the eastern Black Sea region of Turkey. The naturally toxic syrup reportedly tastes more bitter than "normal" honey, and the toxicity is stronger in fresh honey gathered in the springtime, when rhododendrons are among the first plants to bloom.
Mad honey is a razor's-edge substance that can go from intoxicating to lethal in just a few tablespoons. And because potency varies from hive to hive, there's no sure way to tell when enough is enough. In the case of the couple who wound up in the emergency department, increasingly large doses of the toxically tinged honey caused acute inferior myocardial infarctions, adding to the dizziness, hypotension and loss of consciousness they may already have experienced with their first taste. The honey is so potent that ancient armies used it as a weapon, and quite effectively, too.
"The ancient Greek commander Xenophon, who led his army of 10,000 soldiers from Persia back to Greece in 401 BC, prided himself on choosing healthy and safe campsites in hostile territory," says Adrienne Mayor, a research scholar in classics and history of science at Stanford University. She's also the author of "The Poison King," a biography of Mithradates of Pontus, and "Greek Fire, Poison Arrows & Scorpion Bombs," a survey of ancient biological and chemical warfare. "[Xenophon] noted nothing unusual about the campsite in Pontus, on the Black Sea coast on northeast Turkey, but he did note 'an extraordinary number of swarming bees' and said that his men soon discovered the hives and gorged on the sweet treat of wild honey."
Xenophon recorded his thoughts for posterity, and was "appalled when his soldiers suddenly behaved like crazed madmen and collapsed en masse," says Mayor. "His entire army was paralyzed and incapacitated for days, totally vulnerable to possible enemy attack."
Although Xenophon's army recovered before they were discovered and slain, the Roman general Pompey was not so lucky, Mayor said. In 65 B.C.E., during a war against King Mithradates of Pontus, Pompey and his troops traveled through the same area where Xenophon's army had eaten the mad honey and the soldiers happily dined on tantalizing trap honeycombs their enemies placed along their route. One thousand Roman soldiers were ambushed and killed after being rendered inert by the toxic honey.
There are also instances of mad honey being used in mead as a way of stalling encroaching forces. Mead, or honey wine, is made by fermenting honey with water and then flavoring the mixture with fruits and spices. Two notable occurrences of mead made with mad honey took place in the same region where the armies of Xenophon and Pompey once stalled.
"In AD 946, the Russian foes of Olga of Kiev fell to a similar ruse when they accepted several tons of mead from Olga's allies," says Mayor. "All 5,000 Russians were massacred where they had collapsed, reeling and delirious. In 1489, in the same region, a Russian army slaughtered 10,000 Tatars who had drunk many casks of mead that the Russians had deliberately left behind in their abandoned camp."
Mad honey, which posed — and in some cases, still poses — a threat to outsiders unfamiliar with its potency, is treated differently by locals and proponents. In Turkish culture, mad honey is seen as a type of medicine known as deli bal, and is used in small amounts to treat hypertension, diabetes mellitus and stomach diseases. In Nepal, the Gurung community uses mad honey not only for its medicinal properties, but for its hallucinogenic properties as well.
The curious and determined have purchased mad honey from internet sites or from shopkeepers and apiaries who surreptitiously sell the substance in regions where it is produced. Mad honey reportedly costs nearly $170 U.S. dollars per pound, made more expensive both by its active ingredient — grayanotoxin, which causes paralysis and breathing stoppage — and by the difficulty of obtaining it. In Nepal, for instance, the hallucinatory honey is harvested by people who rappel down craggy cliffs while chanting calming words to swarms of bees.
Although honey and mead were among the only natural sweets in antiquity as irresistible as candy, today's soldiers are presumably well-supplied with candy bars and able to forgo the temptation of found hives.
"Mad honey could still be a plausible guerilla-style ruse of war [today]," says Mayor. "It's easy to envision a scenario where soldiers might accept gifts of food or drink from seemingly friendly hosts in alliance with enemies waiting in ambush. One can imagine some situations where local people could set out tempting foods or alcoholic drinks laced with toxic honey."
Sounds like a delicious, but deadly, Trojan horse. Or bee.