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How eating ‘mad honey’ cost Pompey the Great 1,000 soldiers

Video: Division of Marketing and Communications

From licking toads to pouring vodka into the eyes (don’t try these at home), folks have invented some crazy ways to catch a buzz, but one way just might be the sweetest (but still stupid). It’s called “mad honey” and even though most people have probably never heard of it, this honey with hallucinogenic properties has been around since ancient times. Texas A&M University Professor of Anthropology Vaughn Bryant, one of the world’s foremost honey experts, says mad honey has a fascinating history, including its use in war.

Mad honey originated in the Black Sea region of Eastern Turkey where bees pollinate fields of rhododendron flowers, some species of which have a natural neurotoxin called grayanotoxin in their nectars. The honey that results is the most expensive in the world at $166 per pound, notes Bryant, and when consumed, can cause light-headedness, feelings of euphoria and even hallucinations.

Consume too much, however, and mad honey can cause severe sickness, including vomiting, diarrhea, loss of consciousness, seizures and although rare, can be fatal.

“One of the earliest reports of mad honey came from Xenophon of Athens, a student of Socrates and a Greek historian, soldier and mercenary,” Bryant explains. “In his chronicle Anabasis, Xenophon wrote that in 401 B.C.E., a Greek army he led was returning to Greece along the shores of the Black Sea after defeating the Persians. Near Trabzon (in Northeastern Turkey), they decided to feast on local honey stolen from some nearby beehives. Hours later the troops began vomiting, had diarrhea, became disoriented and could no longer stand; by the next day the effects were gone and they continued on to Greece.”

Later, in 67 B.C.E. in Trabzon, Roman soldiers weren’t so lucky. Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (Pompey the Great) and his Roman army were chasing King Mithridates of Pontus and his Persian army along the Black Sea. “The Persians gathered pots full of local honey and left them for the Roman troops to find,” says Bryant. “They ate the honey, became disoriented and couldn’t fight. The Persian army returned and killed over 1,000 Roman troops with few losses of their own.”

Today mad honey can still be found in Turkey and beyond. Texas A&M telecommunications media studies senior Atakan Berkmen, who is from Mersin, Turkey, says he’s heard of mad honey, but doesn’t know anyone who’s tried it. “It’s only in rural parts probably; I’ve never heard of anyone back home doing it − just crazy sheep herders and beekeepers,” he says.

Although difficult to find, Bryant says mad honey can be found in the U.S. “Normally, there are not enough rhododendrons in one area for the bees to make concentrated mad honey,” he explains.  “However, sometimes there is a late cold snap in the Eastern U.S. that kills a lot of flowers but doesn’t seem to stun the rhododendrons. Thus, they are the only thing blooming and the bees will focus all their attention on those flowers and produce concentrated mad honey during that period. These flowers are mostly in the Appalachian Mountains of the Eastern U.S.”

American tales of mad honey can be found from Civil War times, when Union troops found beehives in the mountains and feasted on the honey, says Bryant, adding, “They became sick and disoriented much like the Roman troops centuries earlier in Turkey.  Honey obtained from Kalmia latifolia, the mountain laurels of the northeastern United States, and allied species such as sheep laurel (Kalmia angustifolia) can produce sickness or even death if eaten in large amounts.”

So what about the bees? Are they getting a “buzz” as well?

“Some substances which are toxic to humans have no effect on bees,” notes Bryant. “If bees obtain their nectar from certain flowers, the resulting honey can be psychoactive, or even toxic to humans, but innocuous to bees and their larvae.”