Sunday, December 18, 2011

It's All Fun And Games Until Someone Loses An Eye

Betcha didn't know this--there's actually such a thing as poisonous honey.  It's also called mad honey, and it causes all sorts of problems if you eat it.

It is caused by a substance called grayanotoxin, which comes from... dun Dun DUN... Rhododendron, and related plants including azaleas and laurel. 

The main source of "mad honey" is in Turkey near the Black Sea, where, at least according to these people,  it seems as though rhododendron are something of a pest.  It also occurs in North America, but please don't go digging the rhododendron out of your yard or public park just yet.  In order for the bees to produce toxic honey, the plant has to be the dominant vegetation in the area.  Honey which includes nectar from a couple of garden ornamentals isn't going to hurt you as long as it is made predominantly from something else. 

Not every type of rhododendron produces grayanotoxin.  There are two types, *subgenera Rhododendron luteum, is an azalea which has yellow blooms (I have never ever seen yellow azalea, not even in the south).  They look a lot like lilies to me:

The other subgenera is Rhododendron ponticum.  Both subgenera have grayanotoxin in their nectar, but R. ponticum is the more dangerous of the two.  It has an invasive growth pattern and will take over an area, hence the earlier link to the forestry article.   Of course, higher concentrations of the plant in an area means a more likely incidence of mad honey.

R. catawbiense are the kind that cover the Appalachian mountains.  As far as I can tell, they are included in the ponticum part of the family.  I think that they also have grayanotoxin, but I'm not positive about that.

Just what does this mad honey nonsense do?  Typically effects last fewer than 24 hours, which is good because they include dizziness, nausea & vomiting, excessive sweating, and more severely--a slowing of the heartbeat.  And of course, we can't forget the stark raving crazies.  It can be fatal, but usually it isn't and is supposedly safe(ish) in low doses.

But why ever would one intentionally consume it?

This entry wouldn't be complete if I left out these folks.  The number one reason that people knowingly buy the stuff is becuase it is rumored to be a sexual performance enhancer.  But is it an aphrodesiac?  Is it like a natural viagra?  Do you have to call the doctor if your boner doesn't subside after 3 hours?

Okay, this is totally not related to ANYTHING in this blog, but I found it when I was searching for pictures of Turkey's Black Sea coastline, and I think it's beautiful so I'm sharing.


Xenophon  describe THE DEFEAT OF AN ARMY at the hands of mad honey.  "The Defeat of the Ten Thousand" occured in 430 BC somewhere in modern Turkey (I think).

Strabo says that they gave the army the honey intentionally:
"For they mixed bowls of the crazing honey that the branches of trees yield and placed them in the roads.  Then when the soldiers drank the mixture and lost their senses, they attacked them and easily disposed of them."

One of the Pliny's said something about it too, but frankly, at present I am feeling too lazy to do anymore historical sleuthing.  But if you want to carpe the diem, I think it's somewhere in here.

And finally, speaking of someone losing an eye, this is an Asian Giant Hornet.  They're about 2" long with a 6mm stinger.  Why anyone would purposely hold one of these things in his hand is beyond me.

* A subgenera is in between genus and species.  As a high-school freshman, my science teacher taught us a mnemonic device for remembering the hierarchy of biological taxonomy.  
 Teach it to your kids too.  They'll remember.   Oh, how they'll remember.
Kingdom Phylum Class Order Family Genus Species = King Phillip Can Only F**k Girls Slowly

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