Inner Nature: Mad Honey

By Vidya Rajan, Columnist, The Times

In his book, Anabasis, Xenophon wrote in 401 B.C.E. that his Army of Ten Thousand – Greek soldiers retreating from a failed mission on behalf of Cyrus to dethrone his brother, Artaxerxes – had crossed into a Turkish town called Trabzon, near the Black Sea. Tired but exultant after having arrived at the sea and imminent succor, they rested. They found some local wild beehives and partook of the honey. Xenophon writes:

“As to other things here, there was nothing at which they were surprised; but the number of bee-hives was extraordinary, and all the soldiers that ate of the combs, lost their senses, vomited, and were affected with purging, and none of them were able to stand upright; such as had eaten only a little were like men greatly intoxicated, and such as had eaten much were like mad-men, and some like persons at the point of death. […] They lay upon the ground, in consequence, in great numbers, as if there had been a defeat; and there was general dejection. The next day no one of them was found dead; and they recovered their senses about the same hour that they had lost them on the preceding day; and on the third and fourth days they got up as if after having taken physic.”[1]. 

But things did not go as well for other soldiers. Pompey the Great’s Roman army in pursuit of King Mithridates of Persia in 67 B.C.E. chased them into today’s Georgia on the Black Sea, where mad honey is abundant. The Persians, who knew about its properties, collected pots of the stuff and planted them along the highway. The Romans took the bait. As they lay disoriented, the Persians set upon them, killing over a thousand of the soldiers [2]. Mad honey was the downfall of other troops as well. During the Civil War, Union troops found mad honey in the mountains and suffered the same disorientation that the Roman soldiers did [2]. And the historian L.L. Dove writes, in his book “Ridiculous History”:

In AD 946, the Russian foes of Olga of Kiev fell to a similar ruse when they accepted several tons of mead from Olga’s allies…All 5,000 Russians were massacred where they had collapsed, reeling and delirious. In 1489, in the same region, a Russian army slaughtered 10,000 Tatars who had drunk many casks of mead that the Russians had deliberately left behind in their abandoned camp.”[3].

The mead had deliberately been made from mad honey.

Mad honey has been known since antiquity. Most plants that produce nectar the bees collect to make mad honey belong in the Ericaceae family and include the genus Rhododendron and Kalmia. Plants produce these toxins as a form of defense against predation, and they are widespread in many plant families. Species that are particularly rich in grayanotoxin are the rhododendrons R. ponticum, R. luteum in the regions around the Black Sea. In the United States, grayanotoxin occurs in R. occidentale (Western azalea), R. macrophyllum (California rosebay), and the laurels K. latifolia (mountain laurel) and K. agustofolia (sheep laurel). A hallucinogenic “red honey” is made from R. ponticum by the largest honeybees in the world, the cliff nesting Apis laboriosa. At over an inch long, these bees are formidable and aggressive [4]. Even more formidable are the enormous combs they make on the undersides of cliffs in the Himalayas. To reach the nests, local honey gatherers climb down rickety rope-ladders and hook and break off sections of comb, braving the stings. This honey is red in color and, for the Nepalese Gurung tribe, is an important traditional honey with ritualistic, hallucinatory, aphrodisiac, and immune-enhancing qualities. These bees also collect nectar from Indian monkshood or bikh (Aconitum sp.) which produces aconitine, and from the pangra plant (Entada scandens), whose toxic chemical I was not able to determine. A documentary on mad honey harvesting by Gurungs is at and I encourage you to watch this 30-minute film.  Sadly, climate change and overharvesting has led to a decrease in A. laboriosa populations.

Besides grayanotoxins, other intoxicating and toxic substances can make their way into honey from several plants. The tansy ragwort, which is widespread and invasive in the US Pacific Northwest, produces pyrrolizidine alkaloids which cause liver damage in grazing animals, manifesting up to 6 months after the animals have grazed [5].

On the other side of the continent, Gelsemium sempervirens or Carolina jasmine, produces strychnine. Honeybees collect nectar from this plant and cause the inadvertent death of the brood they feed it to. Interestingly, this toxicity has not deterred the South Carolinians from selecting this honeysuckle mimic as their state flower. Bumblebees, though, have got a measure of the plant. In small doses, the nectar eradicates a gut parasite of bumblebees, making foraging more efficient: the dose makes the poison.

Leaves from a relative of Carolina jasmine, Gelsemium elegans or heartbreak grass, were found in the stomach of a Russian banker-turned-whistleblower, Alexander Perepilichny, in a case related to the death of the Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, for whom the Magnitsky Act now adopted by the US, UK, Canada, and the EU is named. It is thought Perepilichny was assassinated. Strychnine has apparently been replaced by novichok by as the poison of choice. On the other side of the world in New Zealand, the plant Coriaria arborea (Tutu) produces tutin, a toxin present in honey and readily consumed by leafhoppers whose excretions (honeydew) are collected by honeybees. In Mexico, a type of paper wasp called Brachygastra lecheguana is maintained in a state of semi-domestication. Honey from the B. lecheguana hives is harvested regularly and consumed. It is notable that honey collected from summer blooming Datura plants is poisonous due to the presence of the tropane alkaloids scopolamine and atropine. Datura is related to deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna) and mandrake (Mandroga officinarum) and henbane (Hyoscamine niger), belong to the group collectively called the “witches’ weeds”. You may remember from an earlier article about plant toxins that the mnemonic for poisoning by this lot is “hot as a hare, blind as a bat, dry as a bone, red as a beet, and mad as a hatter”. In India, a band called the Thugs, practitioners of thuggee – a bloodthirsty manifestation of worship of the Goddess Kali – and from whose depredations the term “thug” derives, used Datura to stupefy their victims prior to ritual strangulation.

Finally, no discussion of poisoning is complete without recounting the exploits of King Mithridates of Pontus, he who planted the poisoned honey along the road for the Romans under Pompey. As a young man, he had seen his father killed by poisoning. His regent mother preferred his younger brother to himself, so he went into hiding, returning later to depose them both. As a protection against being poisoned like his father, Mithridates himself experimented with poisons, feeding himself small amounts regularly to develop immunity and testing concoctions on prisoners condemned to death. He also used poisons in his wars against the Romans: his army used poisoned arrows whose tips broke off in the wound. But he went too far when he gave word to have 100,000 Romans in Turkey put to death on the same day in 88 B.C.E. Sulla, the Roman dictator who had previously defeated Mithridates sent Lucullus to quell the uprising. Mithridates did not want to be taken alive. He made a concoction, tested it on his two daughters, who died, and chugged the rest himself. But Mithridates did not die – the immunity he had built up worked. So he eventually had Bituitus, a soldier, run him through with a sword [6]. Perhaps he chugged mad honey before this death by seppuku-by-proxy.

Either way, he came to a sticky end.

  1. The Project Gutenberg eBook of The First Four Books of Xenophon’s Anabasis, by J. S. Watson. 2021; Available from:
  2. University, T.A.M., How eating ‘mad honey’ cost Pompey the Great 1,000 soldiers. 2014.
  3. Dove, L.L., Ridiculous History: Ancient Armies Waged War With Hallucinogenic Honey. 2017.
  4. Muir, A. BIOL421 @UNBC – Insects, Fungi and Society. 2021; Available from:
  5. Deinzer, M., et al., (1977) Pyrrolizidine alkaloids: their occurrence in honey from tansy ragwort (Senecio jacobaea

 L.). Science 195(4277):497-9. doi: 10.1126/science.835011

  1. Mclaughlin, W. Mithridates the Poisoner King: Hallucinogenic honey, venom arrows – often experimented with poisons on criminals already condemned to death. 2017 2017-11-21; Available from:


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