hist-brewing: Mad Honey!

Dan McFeeley mcfeeley at keynet.net
Tue Apr 6 07:26:13 PDT 1999


My wife Melissa is subscribed to an Internet discussion group on the Ancient
Near East, and pointed out a request for references on "Mad Honey."  I posted
a few citations (listed at the end of this post) and then got a request to
summarize the articles.  I thought Hist-Brewing members might be interested 
in the subject also.

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Dan McFeeley
mcfeeley at keynet.net




>Date: Tue, 06 Apr 1993 10:01:45
>To: ANE (Ancient Near East)
>From: Dan McFeeley <mcfeeley at keynet.net>
>Subject: Re: ane Mad Honey (long!)
>
>At 12:41 AM 4/2/99 -0500, Judith Weingarten wrote:
>>Message text written by Dan McFeeley
>>>Leach, David.  "That's Why the Lady is a Tramp," Journal of the American 
>>     Rhododendron Society, October 1982, pp. 151-152.
>>
>>Mayor, Adrienne.  "Mad Honey!"  Archaeology, vol 48, #6, November/December
>>     1995, pp. 32-40.<
>>
>>For those of us without easy access to the Jr of Am Rhododendron Soc, or
>>even Arch., could you tell us what are the (claimed) effects of eating raw
>>honey?
>>
>>It sounds fascinating.
>>
>>Judith
>
>
>Sure!
>
>The problem is not so much eating raw, or organic honey, but the nectar 
>source of the honey.  Certain plants are toxic and if the toxin is also in
>the nectar of the flower, honey produced by it is also toxic.  Kenneth Lampe,
>writing in the Journal of the American Medical Association, warns that the 
>most likely sources for honey poisonings are small operation apiaries or 
>farms.  Experienced beekeepers are generally aware of any toxic floral 
>sources in their area and take the necessary steps to prevent their honey
>from becoming a source for toxic poisoning, such as monitoring the produce
>and blending the honey from varying nectar sources in sufficient quantities
>to eliminate any danger from toxicity from the local flora. 
>
>Raw, or unprocessed honey can present other dangers to consumers.  Honey
>has a water content of about 17 or 18%, which is too high an osmotic 
>pressure for micro organisms to grow and reproduce.  It does contain
>the spores of wild yeasts and bacteria, including botulism spores, as well
>as various pollen grains from the nectar source.  People with allergies can 
>have a reaction to certain types of honey, and honey can be dangerous to 
>children under one year of age due to the immaturity of the immune system 
>and G.I. tract.  Commercial processing can reduce these risks, but honey 
>of any kind should never be given to children under one year of age.
>
>The recorded history of the flowering rhododendron as a source of honey
>poisonings goes back several millennia.  The ill fortunes of Xenophon, author
>>of the _Anabasis_, brilliant military leader and a former member of the
>circle of students who followed Socrates, may be one of the more well known
>instances of honey poisonings.  In 401 B.C., after a disastrous campaign
>in Persia, Xenophon was elected to take command of 10,000 Greek soldiers.
>He lead them through mountains of Kurdistan, through Georgia and then
>Amenia.  They made camp in the territory of Colchis, two days march
>fom Trebizond, where they noticed a large number of beehives.  After
>fasting on the honey they raided from the hives, the soldiers became
>"ike intoxicated madmen," were seized with fits of vomiting, became weak,
>disoriented, and collapsed by the thousands.  "A great despondency prevailed,"
>he wrote, until they recovered a few days later and moved westward to 
>friendlier territory.  
>
>Pompey's armies, in 67 B.C., did not fare as well.  While campaigning against
>Mithridates, the king of Pontus, he camped near Trebizond, close to where
>Xenophon's soldiers had camped three hundred years ago.  Allies of 
>Mithridates, the Heptakometes, placed toxic honeycombs along Pompey's route.
>The same scenario was repeated, and Pompey's soldiers were massacred.  The
>incident is recorded in Strabo's _Geography_.  A similar ruse was used 
>against Russian foes of Olga of Kieve in 946 A.D.  Five thousand were 
>massacred after accepting several tons of fermented honey from her followers.
>Tartar soldiers were cut down by Russians in 1489 after stopping at an 
>abandoned camp and drinking from the casks of mead they found there.
>
>The nectar source for what came to be known as "mad honey" was a species
>of rhododendron well known in the Black Sea region.  The Roman naturalist,
>Pliny wrote of the toxic honey of the region, calling it 'meli maenomenon,'
>or "mad honey" and noting that, although the people of the area were able
>to pay a large tribute of beeswax to the Romans every year, they were 
>unable to sell their honey due to its poisonous quality.  Pliny was also
>one of the first writers to attribute the toxic source of the honey to the
>native rhododendron, azalea and oleander plants.  Dioscorides, a Greek
>physician whose _De Materia Medica_ became a major herbal reference for
>physicians over the next 1,500 years, also noted the toxic nature of honey
>produced in the Black Sea region and the flowers which produced the toxin.
>
>Many modern writers considered themselves more enlightened and lightly
>discounted the idea of mad honey.  According to the _Encyclopedia Britannica_ 
>of 1929: "In all likelihood the symptoms described by these old writers were 
>due to overeating," or to eating honey "on an empty stomach."  On the
>other hand, in the _Transactions of the American Philosophical Society_
>(vol. 5 1802), Benjamin Barton gave a detailed report of known cases of
>toxic honey poisoning in the U.S.  The symptoms he described, dizziness,
>disorientation, pain in the GI tract, convulsions, profuse perspiration,
>vomiting, closely matched the descriptions of the Classical writers.  
>Former confederate surgeon J. Grammer wrote in _Gleanings in Bee Culture_ 
>(1875) of cases of southern soldiers poisoned by honey.  Again, he described
>symptoms of tingling, blurred vision, nausea, and loss of muscle control which
>subsided in a few days, just as had been recorded in ancient times.  
>
>P.C. Plugge, in 1891, was able to isolate the toxic compound in the honey
>from Trebizond and identified it as andromedetoxin, now known as 
>acetylandromedol, a type of grayanotoxin.  Pliny was verified; these toxins
>are known to occur in Mediterranean oleander, members of the heath family
>(Ericaceae) which includes the rhododendron, azaleas of the Black Sea
>and Caucasus area, and the mountain laurel of the Eastern United States
>and Pacific Northwest.  
>
>Grayanotoxins act as breathing inhibitors and hypnotics that act upon the
>central nervous system.  Their effect is to bind to sodium channels in
>cell membranes, an important mechanism governing muscle and nerve cell
>activation and deactivation.  As a result, heart action, muscular control,
>and the nervous system are greatly affected, according to the amount of
>toxin taken into the body.  Death is rare, but has occurred.  Symptoms
>begin with tingling, numbness, dizziness, impaired speech, and even 
>hallucinations such as whirling lights.  With greater amounts of ingested
>toxin, victims experience vertigo, delirium, nausea and vomiting, impaired
>breathing, bradycardia (dangerously low heartbeat), hypotension (a drop
>in blood pressure), cyanosis (blue color to the skin due to impairment
>of the respiratory and circulatory systems), muscle paralysis and unconscious.
>In severe cases, ventricular tachycardia (abnormally high contraction of
>the lower ventricular chambers of the heart) compounded by contractions
>of the heart out of sync with the sinus node, the primary pace maker of
>the heart, can occur.
>
>Toxicity levels vary according to the species of rhododendron.  Some are
>highly toxic, such as the species that blooms so profusely in the Black
>Sea region, and some are mildly toxic or even inactive.  Poisonings from
>ingestion of the plant or its nectar are extremely rare, and are more
>commonly encountered in instances of toxic honey ingestion.  Given the
>care of beekeepers to prevent their honey from being contaminated by
>toxic local flora, these cases are generally accidental.  They are 
>common enough, however, on the northern Pacific coast for emergency 
>room departments to consider honey poisoning as a differential diagnosis
>to be ruled out in cases presenting as acute myocardial infarction.  
>Treatment in these cases generally focuses on the cardiac symptoms of 
>altered heart rate and hypotension, with careful monitoring in the event
>that the cardiac symptoms are severe enough to require a temporary pacemaker.
>Poison control data bases used by hospital emergency rooms in all parts of
>the country will have some mention of toxic honey.  Victims generally
>recover within a few hours, with the symptoms subsiding at most in a few
>days.  Again, death from honey poisoning occurs very rarely in the total
>number of recorded cases, and is dependent on the amount of honey ingested.
>
>Honey poisonings in the writings of Greek and Roman authors are usually
>associated in the springtime.  Longus, a romantic poet of the 2nd century
>A.D., for example, sung of the kiss of his lover, comparing it with "the
>madness of new honey."  Descriptions of mad honey, however, varied.  
>Benjamin Barton thought it was usually reddish in color, some ancient
>descriptions pointed to an acid or bitter taste.  Others said it was
>indistinguishable from good honey, or worse, that a single honey comb
>might contain both toxic honey and good honey.  John Ambrose, state
>apiculturist in North Carolina, has pointed out that bees will usually
>bypass Ericacae plants when there are flowers with higher sugar and nectar
>content available.  Rhododendrons bloom early in the spring, and sometimes
>are a dominating area flora.  When these are the only flowers available
>to ranging bees, the honey will be toxic, particularly in the springtime.
>"Green," or unripened honey, i.e., uncapped honey whose water content has
>not yet been reduced by the bees, seems to be the most suspect honey
>for toxicity.
>
>Although the dangers of mad honey were familiar to natives of the areas where
>it was well known, it was not shunned altogether.  Pliny wrote that well aged
>'meli maenomenon' made a good mead.  The people of the Caucasus area have 
>used toxic honey for centuries to add to alcoholic drinks.  The purpose was to
>intensify the alcoholic effect.  Toxic honey was known as 'deli bal' in 
>Turkey and was a major Black Sea export in the eighteenth century.  Toxic 
>honey, known as 'miel fou' to consumers in Europe, was shipped in amounts of
>25 tons yearly, to be used in European taverns.  The size of the dose 
>determined the effect, recreational drug or strong poison.
>
>Adrienne Mayor, in his article titled "Mad Honey," published in the Nov/Dec
>1995 issue of _Archaeology_, offers some fascinating speculations about
>the use of mad honey among the Greeks.  Roman writers, he states, noted
>that the Pythia at Delphia used laurel leaves, either burned or chewed,
>to induce the ecstatic state in which the future was prophesied.  Suggesting
>instances where the use of grayanotoxins may have gone poorly, he cites
>Plutarch's observation that Pythias often died young, or a trance that 
>went terribly out of control.  In the 2nd century A.D., according to
Plutarch, he Pythia had become terribly disoriented, rushed about shrieking,
and >then collapsed and died.  The meaning of the word laurel is unclear.  The 
>Greek word is 'Daphne,' which can include plants native to Greece that
>are poisonous, causing stupor, convulsions, and even death.  Laurel and
>bay are terms for species with similar characteristics such as dark, glossy, 
>and evergreen type leaves, but include diverse species, such as rhododendrons,
>according to Mayor.  He states that if the Pythia were using a plant to
>assist their ecstatic states, it was likely one of the flowering plants
>of the Ericacae family.
>
>Mayor also advances the proposition that women who took part in religious
>rites made use of mad honey, or mead with added mad honey.  The _Homeric
>Hymn to Hermes_, composed between the 8th and 6th centuries B.C., describes
>bee-priestesses, or 'melissai,' who revealed the future under the influence
>of "maddening" honey.  These melissai lived by the cliffs of Mount Parnassos
>and fed on
>
>        'meli chloron,' food of the gods
>        Divinely maddened, they are inspired to speak the truth
>        But if they are deprived of the divine honeycomb
>        they cannot prophesy.
>
>'Chloron' is usually translated as "golden" or "liquid," suggesting a mead,
>but Mayor points out that 'chloron' can also indicate "green," as in fresh
>or uncured.  The 'meli' here can also mean the green unripened honey of
>the spring, or mad honey.  The hymn also compares the religious frenzy of
>the melissai to that of the Maenads, female followers of Dionysos.
>In the 5th century, playwright Euripedes wrote of the Maenads as waving
>wands flowing with honey and who drank an intoxicating mixture of honey
>and alcohol to achieve a prophetic state of mind.  Mayor further speculates
>that, because the Pythia at Delphi were also known as 'melessai,' or 
>bee-prophetesses, it is possible that mad honey, or mead spiked with
>mad honey, was used to inspire the prophecies of the Delphic oracle.
>
>
>This is a fairly loose summary of the references I'd posted earlier.  My
>wife Melissa (coincidently enough!) is the subscriber to this list, and she
>pointed out Ken Stein's post because of my interest in mead making.  I'd be
>interested if other list members have any other comments on this subject.




Barton, Benjamin Smith.  "Some Account of the Poisonous and Injurious Honey
     of North America," Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, 
     vol 5, 1802, pp. 51-70.

Lampe, Kenneth F.  "Rhododendrons, Mountain Laurel, and Mad Honey," Journal 
     of the American Medical Association, Vol. 259, #13, April 1 1988, p. 2009.

Leach, David.  "Ancient Curse of the Rhododendron," American Horticulturist,
     Vol. 51, 1972, pp. 20-29.

Leach, David.  "That's Why the Lady is a Tramp," Journal of the American 
     Rhododendron Society, October 1982, pp. 151-152.

Mayor, Adrienne.  "Mad Honey!"  Archaeology, vol 48, #6, November/December
     1995, pp. 32-40.

Mirkin, Gabe.  "Side Effects of Raw Honey," Journal of the American Medical
     Association, Vol. 266, #19, November 20, 1991, p. 2766.



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