Thursday, May 30, 2013

Toxic or Mad honey?! Honey as a tool of war.

Can unadulterated honey be toxic?  Isn't honey supposedly the perfect food?!
I'm not referring to honey from nectar where flowers have been treated with pesticides, although this can occur.  (I personally choose to use no pesticides in or near my beeyard.)  Here, instead, I refer to the nectar from the flower itself.

I mentioned in my last posting of the special cases of azaleas and rhododendrons as bee flowers.

(Consider the following,... parts of which were excerpted but originally posted in Today's Zaman: Mad Honey of the Black Sea, by Kathy Hamilton)

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  are 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 even 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 also used at one time in warfare as part of the arsenal.

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,  as well as the woods that were filled with beehives. All was not as tranquil as at first seemed.

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 is 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 be a tool of war?

In most cases, Deli Bal is not fatal, so “Death by honey” should not be a concern.
The symptoms are however real: slight hallucinations, light-headedness, loss of balance, more-than-usual giddiness, and faintly blurred vision.  Symptoms usually last about two hours, followed by a long comfortable nap. 

Fortunately for us beekeepers, the dose is the poison.  So, if your bees have happened to have visited nearby blooming azaleas or rhododendrons, when you extract at the end of June or beginning of July, all the honey from all the flowers visited will be in the same extracter and any toxin present will be greatly diluted.  The dose, if it should exist at all, will be negligible, and therefore not toxic.  Do not be concerned.

I personally and highly recommend to beekeepers that they not plant azaleas and rhododendrons in their beeyards, and if they are near to neighbors that do, try to place the hives such that those are not the first encountered flowers by your foraging bees.    But, keep in mind that azaleas and rhododendrons only bloom for a short while anyway.  And, these flowers are just one of the many in the smorgasbord of bee flowers visited out there.  And short bloom times mean fewer flowers visited and if you throw in a nice cold snap as we recently had, you've removed all possibility of tainting.

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