People have been getting high for as long as there have been people. We’ve been smoking
plants, eating sacred mushrooms and cacti, drinking hallucinogenic brews, and even licking the bellies of toads. But there’s another source of psychoactive compounds that’s only now being rediscovered by the world. Mad honey. Used for millennia, this natural substance has been employed as an intoxicant, a stimulant, and a weapon of war.
Mad Honey Has Its Origins in the Black Sea Region
The mountainous area surrounding the Black Sea in Turkey hosts vast fields of breathtaking,
evergreen rhododendron trees that seasonally produce explosive pink and reddish flowers that blanket the landscape. These flowers provide an ample source of food for the honeybees that pollinate plants in the area. The local species, Rhododendron luteum, and Rhododendron ponticum produce a potent neurotoxin, called grayanotoxin. Only two or three species out of the roughly 700 rhododendron species in the world produce it. This compound is carried by the bees, along with flowers’ nectar, back to the hive, where it gets incorporated into the honey they produce.
It’s the presence of grayanotoxin in mad honey or Deli Bal as the locals refer to it, that gives the honey its distinctive bitter flavor, its medicinal properties, and its ability to cause a state of mildly-hallucinogenic euphoria in humans. It’s been used as a drug, an aphrodisiac, and a
traditional medicine to treat a number of conditions.
Mad Honey’s Place in History
Xenophon of Athens, a Greek mercenary, soldier, and historian that was taught by Socrates
brings us one of the earliest tales of mad honey in the ancient world. After a victorious battle
against the Persians in 401 B.C.E, the Greek army was marching back to their homeland along the coast of the Black Sea. At one point the hungry soldiers came upon local beehives and decided to pilfer some of the honey for themselves.
In relatively short order the troops found themselves disoriented, vomiting, and suffering from diarrhea. Their stupor was strong enough that they could no longer stand, and so they collapsed until morning. The next day the troops recovered and they pushed on for Greece.
The Romans would have done well to learn from Xenophon’s tale. Unfortunately, their first
encounter with mad honey, which came a few centuries after Xenophon, ended in a
considerably worse outcome.
In this case, it was the Persian army that had the last laugh. They were being pursued by the
Romans along the shore of the Black Sea. The Persians, well aware of the effects of mad
honey, filled pots with the sticky substance and left them out where Roman troops would
Hours later the ravenous Roman army found the honey and consumed it, causing mass
disorientation, degrading their ability to fight. The Persians then descended, slaughtering the Romans without suffering much of a loss of their own troops.
Mad Honey in the Modern World
Today grayanotoxin containing rhododendron species are cultivated in more places throughout the world, but the bulk of the world’s mad honey still comes from the Black Sea region of Turkey, the mountains of Nepal, and a handful of smaller regions around the globe.
Through the efforts of modern-day adventurers, the world is beginning to awaken the potential of mad honey as a medicine, and as a mind-expanding stimulant. Deli Bal is finally making its debut on the world stage, all thanks to the busy honeybees that tirelessly harvest grayanotoxin for our benefit.