People have developed some strange ways of catching a buzz — from licking frogs to pouring vodka in the eye (seriously, don’t try this at home) — but few things are as sweet and crazy as mad honey. Mad honey has been harvested in Turkey for millennia and it’s been used as a sweetener, a drug, and even a weapon of war; here is its story.
In the Turkish villages on the Black Sea, many locals still work the land. You’ll find fields of wheat, corn, cattle farmers, and beekeepers. In the beautifully vast fields of cream and magenta rhododendron flowers the beekeepers unleash their bees, which pollinate the blossoms and make a special kind of honey, which has been used as an aphrodisiac, as a drug and even as a weapon of war – they call it ‘mad honey’ (deli bal).
Mad honey originated in the Black Sea region of Eastern Turkey but nowadays it is also harvested in other areas where rhododendron flowers grow. But it’s not just any species of rhododendron – just a couple of species (Rhododendron luteum and Rhododendron ponticum) have a natural neurotoxin called grayanotoxin in their nectars.
When imbibed in other drinks (or even used on its own), mad honey gives a special kind of buzz, giving the consumer a feeling of euphoria and even hallucinations, acting basically like a drug — and an expensive one at that.
This type of honey is likely the most expensive in the world, at $166/pound. However, if you consume too much, then you’ll get a form of overdose, which includes sickness, vomiting, diarrhea, loss of consciousness, seizures and although rare, can be fatal. For this reason, it was used as a weapon in the Antiquity.
“One of the earliest reports of mad honey came from Xenophon of Athens, a student of Socrates and a Greek historian, soldier and mercenary,” Texas A&M University Professor of Anthropology Vaughn Bryant, one of the world’s foremost honey experts 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.”
But a few centuries later, the 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.”
Rhododendron flowers can be found throughout the entire world, but only in a few areas can mad honey be made.
“There are more than 700 different species [of rhododendron] in the world, but according to our knowledge just two or three include grayanotoxin in their nectars,” says Süleyman Turedi, a doctor at the Karadeniz Technical University School of Medicine in Trabzon, Turkey, who studies deli bal’s effects and has witnessed more than 200 cases of mad honey poisoning.
In Northern Turkey, not only do these species grow in abundance, but the wet, sloped landscape ensures that no other flowers grow there, so that the nectar is pure and doesn’t get mixed up with other plants. Although mad honey only amounts for a small quantity of honey made in the area, it is widely regarded in Turkey as a long-standing tradition.
“People believe that this honey is a kind of medicine,” Turedi says. “They use it to treat hypertension, diabetes mellitus and some different stomach diseases. And also, some people use deli bal to improve their sexual performance.”
But most beekeepers are reluctant to sell it to strangers. Johnny Morris, a travel journalist from the United Kingdom traveled to Turkey in 2003 to taste mad honey in Trabzon, a Turkish city facing the Black Sea. He describes his experience, saying that after just a teaspoon, the honey went to his head.
“It did make me feel quite light-headed,” he says. The honey’s potency seems to have turned it into a treat reserved for those in the know. “I think that the responsible shop keepers know they shouldn’t be selling it to strangers,” Morris says. “They are a bit wary of marketing it.”
Most locals are wary of selling mad honey to foreigners
Locals know how to consume it responsibly and stop eating too much — but it’s not rare that tourists or other buyers fall into the mad honey trap. Mad honey is legal in Turkey, and you can also buy it online in some cases.
“You can easily buy and sell it.” Vaughn Bryant, a pollen expert at the Texas A&M University, who studies pollen traces in honey, confirms that mad honey is easy enough to purchase from abroad via the Internet, too.
However, experts warn against buying mad honey on the internet for a number of reasons — first of all, you may be tricked if you don’t taste it first. Second of all, it can be quite dangerous. Not all honey are made alike — some are stronger than others, especially during the spring and summer.
“In spring and summer, the honeys are fresh and may include more grayanotoxin than in other seasons.” If that doesn’t dissuade the adventurous foodie, then Turedi says to limit intake to less than a teaspoon, “and if you feel some symptoms associated with mad honey, you should get medical care as soon as possible.”
It’s also worth noting that bees don’t get any buzz from mad honey.
“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.”
It’s definitely one of the sweetest drugs out there, and I bet it still has some untapped medical potential (aside for recreational purposes) — especially as it’s legal. Hopefully, it will be studied and better understood in the future.