The Wine Country Online

An introduction to the Remarkable History of Naturally Occurring Toxic Bee Products

By Jack Burton

From an article published in the Nov.-Dec. 1995 issue of Archeology Magazine by Adrienne Mayor titled "Mad Honey! Bees and the Baneful Rhododendron"

Sacred honey. Crazy honey. Mad honey.

The ancient Greeks called the stuff Meli Chloron (loosely, "golden honey"). Cult priests fed it to a select group of young women, the mysterious Melissai. The Bee Oracles of Mt. Panassos who   divinely maddened   were inspired to speak truthfully of the future.

Pliny, the Roman naturalist, identified meli maenomenon [mad honey] as a powerful toxin gathered from the spring bloom of rhododendron, azalea, and oleander. Its properties were well known in his day and it was considered of major importance as a pharmakon all those two thousand years ago.

In 17th century Europe it was called "Miel Fou" ("Crazy Honey") and imported by the ton from the Black Sea regions of Turkey. The locals there called it "Deli Bal" and it was sold to the tavern keepers up north, who mixed it with ale to provide an extra kick.

Mad honey stopped a great army in its tracks in 401 B.C. The Greek general Xenophon reported in his history, "The Anabasis," that while returning from a successful campaign in Persia his men raided some of the numerous wild bee hives in the territory of Colchis near the Black Sea. They became "like intoxicated madmen." As if under a spell the warriors were immobilized, and a "great despondency prevailed" for several days.

Nearly four centuries after Xenophon's experience, the geographer Strabo describes the woe inflicted upon the Roman general Pompey by the locals in the Trebizond region on the southern shores of the Black Sea. It seems the defenders deliberately placed toxic honeycombs along Pompey's route of march. Three of his squadrons succumbed to the delicious poison and were set upon and wiped out while under its influence.

In A.D. 946, Russian foes of Olga of Kiev fell for a similar ruse in the same region when they accepted several tons of fermented honey from her followers. The whole 5,000 of them were later massacred as they lay in a stupor.

All this is known from history. We can hypothesize that from the evidence of bees and their close association to Dionysos, God of Madness, and his Maenads to whom honey was sacred, that some honeys   properly handled and administered   may contain a key to the door between the worlds.

It is a curious trait of the higher primates that we seek out and consecrate those substances and practices that are associated with psychic transport.

In 1891, the actual agent that puts the madness in Mad Honey was isolated in a sample of toxic honey from the Trebizond region of Turkey. Andromede toxin (now called acetylandromedol) is a type of grayanotoxin that has been identified as a breathing inhibitor and hypnotic. It acts dramatically on the central nervous system. Depending on the amount consumed, one experiences tingling sensations and numbness, dizziness, psychedelic optical effects such as whirling lights and tunnel vision, giddiness and swooning, and impaired speech in which words and syllables are uttered out of sequence. Symptoms may progress to vertigo, delirium, nausea, respiratory difficulty, very low pulse rate, a ghastly blue skin color, muscle paralysis, unconsciousness, and even death.

I found out all about these intriguing properties the hard way!

There is a long history of travelers in strange new lands falling victim to the noteworthy effects of toxic bee products. It took me twenty years and a chance reading of Adrienne Mayor's article (which contains all the preceding information) to make a connection between a sunny day at the Portland (Oregon) Saturday Market, a pound of bartered bee pollen, and a week of infirmity that made such an impression on me that I can recall my distress as if it were yesterday.

I was new to the Pacific Northwest in 1975. A girlfriend introduced me to the colorful community of crafts people, cooks, farmers, minstrels and street vaudevillians who   rain or shine   would converge each weekend from May to December to form the highly animated Portland Saturday Market in a parking lot down by the river. The Saturday Market was (and still is) a wildly successful melange of 1960s counter-culture values plus a freewheeling, street-wise and constantly evolving experiment with small-time capitalism.

The author at work, 1976
I had worked through the winter of 1975 to find a small voice in silver, stones, old coins, beads, and brass. For the next seven years, every market day would find me cross-legged on an old Mexican blanket with my tools and baskets of beads selling hippie jewelry. I always made a little money and could barter my handwork for all the accouterments and accessories to the hippie lifestyle. I traded for all kinds of cool stuff: the elaborately embroidered vest, a bamboo flute, soapstone pipes, drawstring trousers, homegrown weed, poetry, paintings, bootleg plum wine, and one fateful day, a whole pound of bee pollen in a Mason jar.

The bee pollen came by way of my friend Jim. Jim is an old woods hippie who was a saw filer by trade. He has a nice family and a little custom sawmill on a farmstead outside of the coastal mountain town of Vernonia, Oregon. My friend also had a marvelous garden in those hand-to-mouth days, and was a fledgling beekeeper as well.

On market days the whole family would drive down to Portland from their rhododendron-, azalea- and mountain-laurel-covered hills to trade the surplus from garden and hive for all their hippie gear and a day on the town. It was a fine arrangement, except for that fact that I had never even seen or heard of such stuff as bee pollen before.

Jim offered me a little pinch. He told me how the bees, encrusted with pollen, were made to enter the hive through a kind of comblike device. The bees would return from their foraging and this ingenious device would cause the larger accumulations of pollen to come free of the bees and fall into a drawer to be collected up by the beekeeper.

The pollen tasted great! It looked so beautiful in the jar. Tiny orange and golden gems. "So healthful," Jim said.

Jim was in the mood for a special gift for his wife that morning, so I traded him some handwork in silver for a whole jar of the brilliant and mischievous grains.

I was so enthused with my new discovery that I was offering pinches of pollen to everyone who stopped off at my blanket. When I opened the jar to offer a pinch, I'd have a pinch myself. By the end of the day I had probably consumed a couple of ounces of very concentrated flower power.

No one told me not to!

Well, to be fair, Jim may have mentioned that bee pollen is very powerful stuff and that a little goes a long way. I was only taking a little at a time, but I did it all day long . . . . The results were devastating!

Dog sick. Take-me-out-and-shoot-me-like-a-rat miserable. I went from in-the-swim to grim that evening. I experienced all the wretched symptoms Xenophon described so well in 401 B.C. My recollection of a roaring good afternoon and a ferocious hangover fits perfectly with what is known of the effects of grayanotoxins consumed in sub-lethal doses. It took a full week for me to recover. (I may not be over it yet.)

It is indeed a curious trait of the human lineage of primates that an individual would even consider revisiting the agent of such a calamitous episode in search of insight or recreation. But here I am, all these years later, wondering like the ancients did. Could the sacred bee hold the key to the realms beyond our workaday perceptions? Is there a party in the pollen, some wigged-out jive in the hive?

The answer is yes. But, the particulars of dealing with unknown quantities of the powerful breathing inhibitors and hypnotics present in any given sample of presumed crazy honey would make for a very dangerous adventure indeed. Perhaps, if I ever get a chance to visit Turkey again, I might be tempted to travel east along the Black Sea coast in search of the traditional tonic of a spoonful of deli bal in a glass of milk. In the meantime, I have been cutting back on the vision-quest thing, and will confine my research on the subject to a trip (now and then) to the library.

Author's note: While there may be a historical precedent for religious or recreational indulging in toxic honeys, I have to conclude that the agents involved are such distressing narcotics that they best be avoided.

All facts and dates from the first half of the story are from the article "Mad Honey! Bees and the Baneful Rhododendron," published in the November-December 1995 issues of Archeology Magazine by Adrienne Mayor and are presented here as an introduction to her work. For back issues with the full text, please call Archeology Magazine at 212-732-5154 or visit this page to order.

(Photo credit: I can see her face, but I'll be darned if I can recall the name. Circa 1976, Portland, Oregon)