It is important to know the history of Poisonous honey. It’s often mentioned in ancient literature. Xenophon, in the Anabasis, describes the “Retreat of the Ten Thousand.” When the greek army was said to be returning from Asia to Greece, while passing through Trebizond, the soldiers discovered that the woods they were passing through were filled with bee hives, which honeycombs were dripping in honey. Naturally the troops eagerly consumed as much honey as their stomach could tolerate. As a result of this honey binge, they all suffered adverse effects in the form of vomiting, and diarrhea. Many unable to stand on their own to feet… Some dropped to the ground, hundreds of them laid appearing to be dead, others appeared to be violently drunk or acted as if insane. Luckily enough all recovered after three or four days, but still felt ill, and in need of rest.
It was thought that the soldiers had eaten honey that was toxic. They surmised that the honey was collected from poisonous plants. It was well known that the plant rhododendron and azalea were plentiful in that section of the woods. Andromedotoxin, a poisonous glucoside, will produce symptoms similar to those from which the army suffered. Archangelsky discovered two new bodies in the rhododendron plant, rhododendron, and ericolin, both belonging to the camphor group of plants.
Similar observations were made in the Caucausus, near Batum, where rhododendron and azalea also grow in an abundance. Beekeepers in that section do not use the honey in the spring when these plants are in bloom. Ssanjuk, on the other hand, had some doubt of the toxic effect of these plants, and asserts that “the poisonings are due to the fact that when honey is collected in the woods from hollow trees many bees are crushed and the effect is due to the venom of the bees, which the honey contains.” As a matter of fact, he noticed that such honeys were sometimes poisonous, other times not. The writer has to contradict this latter allegation because bee venom, even in large quantities, is readily destroyed by the saliva and gastric ferments.
There are also other plants which yield noxious substances.
H. M. Fraser wrote; “Honey collected from goat’s bane is harmful. Such honey never thickens, is dark red, has a strange smell, is heavier than other honeys, and often causes sneezing. Those who eat it become bathed in perspiration, throw themselves on the ground and are relieved only by repeated doses of a mixture of old mead, rue and salted fish, which produces vomiting. On the Island of Sardinia honeys collected by the bees from certain plants will produce a painful, spasmodic laugh (sardonic laugh). On the Isle of Corsica, honey gathered from the evergreen yew is bitter and not fit to eat, a fact which Virgil mentions. Martial also alludes to the poor quality of certain Corsican plants. “You ask for lively epigrams and propose lifeless subjects. What can I do, Caecilanus? You expect Hyblean or Hymettian honey to be produced and yet offer the Attic bee nothing but Corsican thyme.” Ovid refers to honeys collected from hemlock as infamous. Galen mentions an incident when two physicians, tasting honey at the open market in Rome, fell to the ground and soon afterwards died. In Heidelberg and its surroundings, it is well known that chestnut honey has a strong hypnotic effect. The bees collect this honey from the blooms of the chestnut trees (castania vesca).
If an extracted sting apparatus, which, as a rule, is accompanied by a poison bag, is imbedded in honey, it may inflict a wound hours or even days later. The venom is volatile, but its strength is well preserved in honey. Sporadic cases have been reported where buried stings were found in broken combs and persons eating such honey were injured in their mouths. A detached sting, coming in contact with body surfaces, may work automatically without the bee, and dig itself into the layers of the skin or of the mucous membranes, emptying the contents of the poison bag into the wound.
The “mad” honey of Pontus was often mentioned. “Aelian’ commented that honey of Pontus made people mad but cured epilepsy. Its toxicity was also attributed to rhododendron and azalea, with which the woods of Pontus abound. Pliny described a mountain on the Island of Crete, nine miles in circumference. The honey produced there would not be touched even by flies but it was highly valued as a medicine. Poisonous honeys are also found in certain districts of Persia.
“Dr. Barton” reported (American Philosophical Transactions, 1790, Vol. V.) that “in the autumn and winter of the year 1790 many people died in Pennsylvania from the effects of wild honey, collected from kalmia (lamb-kill) plants. Several fatal cases were reported at the same time in New York State, caused by wild honey made from the flowers of laurel shrubs. Honey collected by the bees from mountain laurel is often poisonous. Even today the beekeepers in North and South Carolina first try the effect of laurel honey on the family dog. If the dog, after indulging in suspicious honey, shows symptoms of staggering and has a glazed look, the honey is condemned.”
Maladies caused by the consumption of honey are, as a matter of fact, not attributable to the honey itself. The bees, besides gathering nectar, collect a certain amount of pollen which they deposit in the brood cells for their young. Pollen is a protein substance which the brood requires for building new tissues. After the brood is developed it will consume only honey, that is carbohydrates, to generate energy. A full-grown bee does not re-place tissues, consequently does not require protein. The pollen, called bee-bread, a protein substance, is exposed to fouling and decomposition and also to formation of toxins through bacterial invasion. In a word, some ailments are produced not by honey but by protein; they are plain and simple cases of ptomaine poisoning.
In modern honey production, of course, this cannot happen. The bees do not store protein in the small upper combs, called supers, but in the larger brood frames. The honey in the supers is meant for human consumption. To prevent the queen from laying eggs in these small combs the two sections of the hive are separated by a screen through which there is a passage, large enough to permit the entrance of the smaller worker bees but which prevents the queen, on account of her massive figure, from going through it. If honey is extracted by centrifugal force even from the brood cells, only the liquid honey is ejected and the bee-bread will remain in the combs. The contention made by some research workers that poisoning from eating honey is sometimes due to bee venom is all wrong. The venom, if there is any in honey, would be easily destroyed, as already mentioned, by digestive ferments.
It is noteworthy that the flowers of certain plants are not poisonous to the bees, but the honey made from these plants is harmful. Other plants again, e.g. poison-ash, are liable to kill a whole hive of bees. (Certain kalmia leaves are fatal even to pheasants.) Some plants affect young bees and not the older ones. Dead bees are found occasionally on tulips, though tulips do not secrete nectar. Bees collect nectar from poison ivy with-out injury to themselves, neither is such honey harmful. All in all, poisonings with wild honeys are rare, since bees carefully select the wholesome plants and resort to other sources only when in utmost need. Bees will avoid plants like wormwood, rhubarb, aconite, jasmine, senna, wood-laurel and rhododendron; they never visit these flowers except when there are no others obtain-able. Honeys collected from the blooms of onions and leeks (the national emblem of the Welsh) are not unhealthy but their aroma is transmitted—not to the best advantage. Chinquapin honey is bitter as gall, but not harmful. The beautiful and fragrant yellow jessamine that turns the color of the Southern swamps to gold in the springtime has the reputation of yielding poisonous honey.