Why Some Himalayan Bees Produce Hallucinogenic "Mad" Honey

The Himalayan cliff honeybee has been known to produce 'mad honey.' L. Shyamal via Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0

For a short period each spring, bees in certain parts of the world add a little extra ingredient to their honey, giving it a trippy twist. By gathering nectar from the rhododendrons that come into bloom at this time of year, they infuse their sugary produce with certain toxins that cause a range of interesting effects when ingested by humans.

Known as “mad honey,” it is sought after by some for its supposed medicinal properties, although eating large quantities can cause dizziness, hallucinations, nausea, and a range of cardiac effects. It’s harvested from the nests of several species of bee, including the Himalayan cliff honeybee (Apis dorsata laboriosa), the largest honeybee in the world, and is considered to be an aphrodisiac, among other things. For this reason, it is particularly popular among middle-aged men suffering from sexual performance issues.

These unusual characteristics are caused by a group of chemicals called grayanotoxins, which are present in the nectar of rhododendrons. Although not considered lethal for humans, they can generate a number of symptoms such as hypertension, and are thought to be capable of killing some animals. Despite the honey’s traditional use in folk medicine, the curative effects of grayanotoxins have not been confirmed by scientific studies.

Most prominent in eastern Turkey, mad honey was once responsible for the defeat of three Roman squadrons who become intoxicated on it. In the Himalayas, the honey is traditionally harvested by local tribes such as the Gurung of Nepal, who risk their lives in order to access the bees’ hives, which are found on vertical cliff faces. The rewards are great, however, with each hive containing up to 60 kilograms (132 pounds) of honey.

As with all intoxicants, though, taking too much is never fun - as the above video demonstrates.


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