Hallucinogenic Mad Honey in Turkey
This honey will send you reeling so why aren’t those who enjoy being tipsy stirring it into their morning cups of tea?
Mad Honey originates in the Black Sea region of Turkey when honeybees pollinate the rare magenta and cream-colored rhododendron flowers in remote mountainside towns.
Grayanotoxin is the hallucinogenic ingredient found in the rhododendron nectar of the dark reddish-colored honey known as deli bal in Turkey. Grayanotoxin is a neurotoxin and even a small dose can make you light-headed and give you hallucinations.
Black Sea traders back in the 1700s used to sell this prized product to Europe, where alcoholic drinks were infused with it in order for drinkers to get a euphoric high that went beyond what alcohol could offer them.
It was a tricky situation, however, because drinking too much could cause such overdose symptoms as an irregular heartbeat, nausea, numbness, low blood pressure, blurred vision, fainting, diarrhea, potent hallucinations, seizures and even death on rare occasions.
This video is less than 1-minute long and shows the stunning scenery where the mad honey originates.
In recent times there are few reports of mad honey overdoses, but every once in a while it happens to tourists in Turkey.
Why is it that rhododendron flowers grow all over the planet, but we only hear of mad honey in the Black Sea area of Turkey?
According to Süleyman Türedi, a doctor at the Karadeniz Technical University School of Medicine in Trabzon, Turkey, who has witnessed over 200 cases of mad honey poisoning and studied deli bal’s effects, over 700 species of rhododendrons grow around the world. Grayanotoxin is found in many species, but only 3 species carry significant levels of it — Rhododendron luteum, Rhododendron flavum and Rhododendron ponticum. These are most commonly found in the Black Sea area of Turkey and in Nepal. Mad honey only represents a tiny percentage of overall Black Sea honey production.
The species that grow in the Black Sea area are very potent and pure because the poisonous rhododendrons are abundant and grow on humid mountainous slopes, which is the perfect setting for monocrop-like swaths to thrive. When the honeybee collects honey from these fields, no other nectar gets mixed in—it is undiluted.
The Turkish people treat this honey with respect and consider it a type of folk medicine. Deli bal is used as a remedy to diabetes mellitus, hypertension, some stomach ailments and as an aphrodisiac. They consume it usually in small amounts, typically just prior to breakfast taken in boiled milk. It is used very sparingly, and they would never slather it on bread or stir a generous spoonful into a cup of tea.
UK travel writer Johnny Morris wrote of his experiences in 2003 in his travel column Grail Trail, when he went to taste mad honey in Trabzon, a Turkish city positioned against the mountains, looking out on the Black Sea. He teaches of the historical use of deli bal. Apparently it has been harvested in Turkey for millennia and was used as a weapon of mass destruction for invading armies and therefore has a rich history in Turkey.
Texas A&M University Professor of Anthropology Vaughn Bryant is one of the world’s foremost honey experts. He shares this story of how mad honey was used as a weapon in Antiquity. “In his chronicle Anabasis, Xenophon of Athens, a student of Socrates and a Greek historian, soldier and mercenary, wrote that in 401 B.C.E., the Greek army he was leading home to Greece passed 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. The next day the effects were gone, and they continued on to Greece.”
This video features Professor Vaughn Bryant and is just 1:59-minutes long.
Then, in 67 BCE, Roman soldiers invaded the Black Sea region under orders from Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (General Pompey the Great). The Persian army of the reigning King Mithridates of Pontus secretly lined the Romans’ path with mad honeycomb. The story recounts how the army devoured these treats and went into an intoxicated stupor. This made it easy to slay the flailing soldiers, who became easy prey. The Persians killed over 1,000 Roman troops and suffered few losses.
Mad honey was deliberately harvested in this area, it was no accident of nature. Yet it is not so easy to find. It is very entrenched in Trabzon, both the city and the province, which is where the Romans met their “sweet fate” centuries ago thanks to the toxic honeycomb. Morris said it was not readily found and quite a search was necessary to find deli bal. He had to venture into the Trabzon mountains, then finally found it after being let in on a secret in a shop stocked with apiarist gear that sells all types of honey. The shopkeeper produced a large jar of frothy deli bal from beneath a counter, and cautioned Morris not to eat too much, referring to the honey as orman koman bali or rose-of-the-forest honey. Just one teaspoon went straight to his head, making him quite light-headed.
Morris suspects that shop keepers know that selling it to strangers could be dangerous, so they don’t market it openly.
Deli bal is not a restricted substance, it is merely self-regulated on an individual basis. Turedi says the potent honey is legal in Turkey and is recognizable to locals. It is considered bitter honey, as it causes a sharp burning sensation in the throat.
Vaughn Bryant, who is also a pollen expert, adds that mad honey is easy to buy on the internet. Bryant is considered by some to be a ‘honey detective.’ He has been fascinated with mad honey and has wanted to analyze it for decades, but had a hard time getting a sample and wanted to avoid paying the $166 per pound online price. He also wanted to be sure that what he got was the real thing. Eventually his Turkish friend acquired some from hives in the middle of the rhododendron fields, and just a drop or two numbed his friend’s tongue. Bryant wants to chemically analyze it to learn more.
Deli bal is potent because it is unprocessed, untreated and pure, therefore it can product numbing vertigo-like symptoms.
Turedi warns that consuming more than one spoonful of this grayanotoxin-laced honey puts you at risk of mad honey poisoning. Also, the honey is fresh and most potent in spring and summer, so the neurotoxin may also be more potent then. If one feels any symptoms associated with mad honey it is advisable to seek medical treatment as soon as possible.
The mystique of deli bal, or mad honey, lives on, although it is little known in the West these days. Bryant theorizes that knowledge of it possibly tapered off due to the accessibility to cheap alcohol and imported cocaine in the 1800s.
And now to the question you may be wondering about.
Do bees get a buzz from the mad honey? According to Bryant, they do not.
He says that although some substances are toxic to humans, they have no effect on bees. Bees can obtain nectar from certain flowers and the resulting honey they produce may be psychoactive, or even toxic to people, but totally innocuous to bees and bee larvae. We blogged about this recently in our post about bees and cannabis.
For now, the mysterious mad honey is one of the sweetest mind-altering drugs out there. It is available to responsible locals in the know that use it with respect, in small shops that are tucked away off the beaten track in Turkey.
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