It’s a tough world! And searching for something, anything, that makes us happier is a normal thing. The reputation of some toxic honey, also called mad honey, red honey, hallucinogenic honey, as a product with psychoactive effects, has caught the attention of people. But as in many cases, reputation is oftentimes incomplete and misleading.
It can, indeed, be used with recreational purposes, but only specific honeys, in specific doses and in certain moments. There are few people who know all these things, and their explanations are incomplete. Not to mention that we have only a few scientific studies. (see footnotes)
We’ll see what’s true and what to expect.
Flowers can be toxic, poisonous. And just like with some people, :), poisonous flowers can be sweet and attractive to bees. The toxicity of these flowers do not harm the bees, so there is no problem for them.
Which are the toxins? In what plants?
There are two main toxin groups: diterpenoids and pyrrazolidine alkaloids.
1. Diterpenoids (grayanotoxins) are found in some plants of the Ericacea family belonging to the sub-family Rhododendron, like Rhododendron ponticum, but also in Pieris, Agarista and Kalmia.
Grayanotoxins are polyhydroxylated cyclic diterpenes, also known as andromedotoxin, acetylandromedol, rhodotoxin and asebotoxin, studied in 1996 by G DE BODT.
2. Pyrazolidine alkaloids, are found in different honey types and the potential intoxication by these substances was reviewed by J A Edgar, E L Roedner and R J Molyneux in 2002.
Where do these plants grow?
There have been cases of honey poisoning, though reported very rarely in the literature, in Caucasus, Turkey, New Zealand, Australia, Japan, Nepal, South Africa and different countries in North and South America.
In the USA, grayanotoxin-contaminated honey is mainly produced from:
– Western Azalea (Rhododendron occidentale) found from Oregon to southern California,
– California Rosebay (Rhododendron macrophyllum) found from British Columbia to central California,
– Rhododendron Albiflorum found from British Columbia to Oregon and in Colorado.
– Mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia)
– Sheep laurel (Kalmia angustifolia).
Read more on toxic honey.
Which are the symptoms of poisoning?
Shortly after ingestion we can see the first symptoms: dizziness, weakness, excessive perspiration, nausea, and vomiting. Other symptoms: low blood pressure or shock, bradyarrhythima (slowness of the heart beat associated with an irregularity in the heart rhythm), sinus bradycardia (a slow sinus rhythm, with a heart rate less than 60), nodal rhythm (pertaining to a node, particularly the atrioventricular node), Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome (anomalous atrioventricular excitation) and complete atrioventricular block.
! While poisoning from grayanotoxins is rarely fatal in humans and generally lasts for no more than 24 hours, it can be lethal for animals (there are lots of cattle and pet poisoning cases from the ingestion of the leaves, flowers, and nectar of rhododendrons).
Scientists say that symptoms are caused by an inability to inactivate neural sodium ion channels resulting in continuous increased vagal tone. Grayanotoxin containing products are currently sold online, and this may pose an increasing risk. (see Jansen SA in his study “Grayanotoxin poisoning: ‘mad honey disease’ and beyond.”, from 2012)
Specific plants trigger specific symptoms.
– Honey produced from the nectar of Andromeda polifolia contains high enough levels of grayanotoxin to cause full body paralysis and potentially fatal breathing difficulties due to diaphragm paralysis.
– Honey obtained from spoonwood and allied species such as sheep-laurel can also cause illness.
– Honey from Lestrimelitta limao also produces this paralyzing effect seen in the honey of A. polifolia.
Do we need medical assistance?
According to FDA, the intoxication is rarely fatal and recovery generally occurs within 24 hours, so intervention may not be required. Severe low blood pressure usually responds to the administration of fluids and correction of bradycardia and therapy with vasopressors (agents that stimulate contraction of the muscular tissue of the capillaries and arteries) is only rarely required.
If you’ve ingested a larger quantity of honey, things get worse, especially because your panic can raise more than expected, go and see a medical doctor and tell him about the honey. It’s safer.
What’s with the Himalayan Red Honey from Nepal?
From all the mad honeys known today, the most famous are Deli Bal from Turkey and Red Honey from Nepal. (click on the picture to learn more about Deli Bal.)
The Himalayan Red Honey is produced by a specific honey bee.
In Nepal, there are at least 5 different honey bee species. The largest of them is The Giant Bee of Himalayas, Apis dorsata, a wild bee which reaches up to 3 cm, builds huge nests on the overhanging rocks of cliff faces, in the high forests of Himalaya.
These bees are commonly known as Khad mauri or Singkushe or cliff bee or King bees.
Apis dorsata is yellow in color with black strips on each abdominal segment. It builds a single comb, 1 to 1.6 m wide and 0.8 to 1.5 m long, underneath a stout branch of tall tree or building or water tower or cliff to protect their nests from top predators (according to FLETCHER in 1952; SEELEY et al. in 1982; CRANE in 1990; WONGSIRI et. al. in 1996). The comb is protected by several layers of protective curtains. The protective curtains maintain a constant brood nest temperature between 30-33 °C.
picture credit Sudan Shrestha, published under CC via Wikimedia Commons
Their nests can reach up to 5 feet in diameter and each of them can contain about 60 kg of honey! (At least one knows it won’t get stung for nothing!)
Lots of beautiful flowers grow in those high forests, in rough conditions. The honey produced from their nectar is medicinal, aphrodisiac, intoxicating and hallucinogenic as well.
It’s made of mainly Rhododendron sp.
Red honey is a multifloral honey made of: Rhododendrons (Rhododendron anthopogon, R. cinnabarinum and R. panticum), Bikh (Aconitum spp.), Pangra (Entada scanders), Pieris (Pieris formosa) and Niramasi.
Other plants like: Ridhilo, Brassica compestris, Bassia butyracea, Fagopyrum sagittum, Eupatorium odoratum, Brassica nigra are all plants found in Nepal, offering their nectar to bees, so theoretically, bees can travel and add their nectar to the honey.
It is expensive.
Due to its very hard ways of harvesting it, actually of stealing it from the bees, this mad honey is expensive and sells for about 4 times the price of normal honey in the foreign market. And we cannot have the guarantee of genuine red honey. The safest place to buy it is only from the locals. Go on a trip and buy some.
Red honey is not much consumed locally but exporters benefit from the export of this honey due to its medicinal value and relaxing properties. It is sold in a very high price to the Korean market.
It requires special skills to collect it.
The people living in the area are called Gurungs. There are over 3.5 Million Gurungs living in Nepal, and from them an isolated tribe with good knowledge of rock climbing, brave people called HONEY HUNTERS, are trained from generation to generation to collect the honey from the wild bees’ nests.
Hunting for this honey is a dangerous activity and most of the cliffs are named and remembered by the names of honey hunters who died during honey harvesting. The Gurungs must climb up treacherous cliffs and face the fury of swarming bees.
Their hunt takes place twice a year, in spring and autumn, and it begins at the break of morning.
The villagers fill their knapsacks with essential supplies, and trek off to the foot of the nearest cliff.
With the help of only homemade hemp ropes and bamboo ladders, they begin their climb. The cliffs are often as tall as 300 m.
The lead honey hunter collects the honey in a bucket from the beehives and passes down to another person. (See the video below)
The total amount of honey produced in 26 nesting sites of Apis dorsata laboriosa is around 3053 Kg per year. Twelve villages are involved in this process.
It may take 2-3 hours or more just to harvest one of the many colonies.
In the past days, the hunters used to organize a religious ceremony before collecting honey to protect themselves from the attack of honeybees and any misshapen.
Today, the locals celebrate the hunting process as a festival by offering flowers, grains and sheep to the God. It’s a sort of worship meant to show the respect of humans for the hard work of honeybees and their contribution to the survival of human beings.
Some traditional beliefs and superstitions of these hunters:
- Tuesday is the best day for initiating honey-hunting event while Wednesday is not suitable for this event.
- Honey hunting is not allowed in 8th, 11th, 23rd, 26th and 30th day of moon cycle.
- Honey hunters believe that there are two gods in the forest i.e. local god, who looks after local events and the real god of cliff. Worshiping of these gods is mandatory by sacrificing, goat, sheep or chicken for giving blood in the name of god. Worship is also performed for those who passed away from the village.
- Either morning or evening time is considered good for honey hunting.
- In some places there is practice of pouring milk to the cliff before initiating honey hunting.
- Women are not even allowed to watch honey-hunting event in certain communities. They have to stay quite far from cliff site. It is believed that if they participate then the bees will be very aggressive.
- Main honey hunter gets the head of sacrificed animal while meat-cooked during the event is also tasted first by the honey hunter.
- One can not join honey-hunting team if his wife is menstruated or pregnant of over 6 months.
Is mad honey really hallucinogenic?
In small doses, the honey can ensure a soothing sense of inebriation much like the experience produced from a substance such as absinthe.
Some villagers ingest a teaspoon of the honey each morning, as they believe it strengthens the immune system and can lead to a longer and more fruitful life.
In larger quantities, it can induce cardiac arrest, full-scale hallucinations or a period of time when the body seems to undergo a purge and rebirth. Who knows, maybe it actually does so.
“While trekking up in the high hills of Lamjung in Nepal, my friends and I took shelter at a tea-shop off the regular trekking route. There was a porter there with a fair amount of hash for sale and also a jar of what he called “pagal maha” or “mad honey”. None of my friends wanted it so I tried a spoonful. It was thick, not very sweet. I washed it down with some lemon tea and didn’t think much of it. That is, until we tried to goto sleep about an hour later and I realized I could hear my heartbeat in my ears. I felt hot and dizzy and couldn’t sleep at all. It was pitch black all around but I could see points of light all around the roof of the tea shop. There was also this strange buzzing-roaring sound in my ears that sounded alternatively like bees and a large waterfall. Beyond that, there were no hallucinations, just extreme discomfort the entire night. Would not recommend mad honey. Not a pleasant experience at all.”
(reported by xkathmandu and published on upvoted.com)
It is said that the Honey hunters can easily detect intoxicating honey by putting a drop of fresh honey on their skin and observing its color.
See for yourselves!
The filmmaker and world traveler Raphael Treza made a short documentary entitled Hallucinogen Honey Hunters. In the film he meets with a Nepalese tribe to learn about this honey, and how they use it. During the making of the film, the translator ate too much of the honey and fell unconscious. For a while.
Can I see these people in action? Maybe taste some honey?
Honey hunting is linked with fast growing tourism industry in Nepal, which started attracting tourists intended to experience honey hunting in the high hills of Himalayas. It was reported that these honey-hunting groups pay US$ 250-1500 for experiencing one honey-hunting event. – this is to have an idea of the costs.
To see more pictures on gathering this type of honey see the website of Andrew Newey here: http://www.andrewnewey.com/. He is a professional passionate with Nepal and honey. See these pictures, you will surely be impressed and start planning a visit there! Hats off to Mr. Newey!
Can all honeys be poisoned?
All honeys can be poisoned, as they are not harvested from green houses – like Revamil is. In the open air, bees can gather nectar from all flowers they encounter. Even manuka honey can be poisoned with a toxin called tutin, found in some bushes from New Zealand. (see A new dispute on manuka honey market: Is it toxic or not?)
But we should not worry about the honey found in the supermarkets. Commercially processed honeys do not contain these toxins. Neither they can resist the processes of clearing the honey! (See What is processed honey?)
References and picture sources:
· combs on Himalayan cliffs by Sudan Shrestha – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=32987417;
· combs with honey on a plate picture credit Skrissh2013 published under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported licence, via Wikimedia Commons;
· EDGAR, J A; ROEDER, E L; MOLYNEUX, R J (2002) Honey from plants containing pyrrolizidine alkaloids:
A potential threat to health. Journal of agricultural and food chemistry 50 (10): 2719-2730.
· DE BODT, G (1996) Les miels de rhododendrons. Les Carnets du CARI Abeilles et Cie (50): 10-12.