Saturday, September 27, 2014

Mad Honey of Turkey



Recently I came across an interesting article, "The Strange History of ‘Mad Honey’" by Emma Bryce: "Turkey's hallucinogenic 'Mad Honey' is produced when bees pollinate rhododendron flowers in the remote mountainside towns of the Black Sea region." [1]

Rhododendron Ponticum Wikipedia
Rhododendron Luteum, Wikipedia
Images:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Rhododendron_ponticum_2.jpg
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Rhododendron_luteum_(flower).jpg

Rhodedonderon ponticum is red and Rhododendron luteum is yellow. They are called  "rose of the forest" among the locals and they both contain grayanotoxin that is poisonous to humans, causing "dizziness, weakness, confusion, vision disturbances, and heavy sweating and saliva flow, but also irregular or very slow heartbeat, low blood pressure, and fainting." [2]

In the same publication [2] of Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, FDA, it is also noted that there are a number of toxic species, containing grayanotoxin, native to the US, and even to the California: "Of particular importance are the western azalea (Rhododendron occidentale) found from Oregon to southern California, the California rosebay (Rhododendron macrophyllum) found from British Columbia to central California, and Rhododendron albiflorum found from British Columbia to Oregon and in Colorado."

Indeed, mad honey is the very first biological poison used as a weapon of mass destruction in the history [3]. In 401 BC, Xenophon and his Greek army of ten thousand soldiers stopped by at the Black Sea’s region of Turkey during a retreat from Babylon. The army feasted on honeycombs at the green hills covered with beautiful Rhododendron flowers. In his chronicle, Xenophon wrote: "All the soldiers who ate of the honeycombs lost their senses, and were 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, and the sorrow was general. The next day, none of them died, but recovered their senses about the same hour they were seized; and the third and fourth day, they got up as if they had taken a strong potion."

Small doses of the mad honey can also induce hallucinations. Cat Jaffee, who had a chance of consuming a spoon of mad honey during her travel in the region, describes the experience in her blog: "The effects were real: slight hallucinations, light-headedness, loss of balance, more-than-usual giddiness, and faintly blurred vision. My symptoms lasted approximately two hours until I dozed into a comfortable nap. Half an hour later I awoke… fortunately!"

It is sold and consumed in small amounts mostly for medicinal purpose - including but not limited to: gastrointestinal disorders (such as gastritis, peptic ulcers, abdominal pain and indigestion), hypertension, reducing the risk of coronary heart disease, colds and viral infections, blood glucose regulation, sexual stimulant, sexual dysfunction...
[5] reviews its medicinal properties starting from ancient Greek and Latin literature to modern researches.

However, a scientific paper [6], published in Cardiovascular Toxicology Journal of Springer, warns: "consumption of grayanotoxin ... may result in intoxication specifically characterized by dizziness, hypotension and atrial-ventricular block. Symptoms are caused by an inability to inactivate neural sodium ion channels resulting in continuous increased vagal tone." And it notes: "Scientific evidence for the medicinal properties of grayanotoxin ... is scarce."

It is bitter in taste, which is also known as bitter honey in the region. In the 18th century, it was one of the major export to Europe, where it is know as miel fou. Just to be fair, not all honey from the Black Sea region is mad honey. Contrarily, most of the honey produced in the region is very high quality with excellent taste. Rhododendrons are in bloom only during May, and only that honey contains high levels of grayanotoxins.

[1] Emma Bryce, The Strange History of ‘Mad Honey’.
[2] Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, FDA, "Grayanotoxins, Foodborne Pathogenic Microorganisms and Natural Toxins, Bad Bug Book".
[3] Robert Root-Bernstein, Infectious Terrorism.
[4] Cat Jaffee, Marching into History with Black Sea Crazy Honey.
[5] H.V. Harissis and G. Mavrofridis, “Mad honey” in medicine from antiquity 
to the present day, Archives of Hellenic Medicine ISSN 11-05-3992. http://www.mednet.gr/archives/2013-6/pdf/730.pdf
[6] Jansen et. al., Grayanotoxin Poisoning: ‘Mad Honey Disease’ and Beyond, Cardiovascular Toxicology - Springer, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3404272.

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