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Thread: Scientists warn of 'mad honey disease' and I am not making this up!

  1. #1
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    Default Scientists warn of 'mad honey disease' and I am not making this up!

    From the British The Independent online edition:

    http://news.independent.co.uk/uk/hea...cle1433411.ece

    "Scientists warn of 'mad honey disease'
    By Roger Dobson
    Published: 10 September 2006

    Mad honey disease is among the rarest afflictions in the world, but it appears to be on the increase.

    Only 58 cases have been reported worldwide, but eight people were treated in 2005 alone.

    The trend towards eating more natural products may be driving a rise in cases of the disease, whose symptoms can include convulsions, low blood pressure, fainting and temporary heart problems, according to a new report.

    "Mad honey disease has the potential to cause death if untreated," say the researchers. "Because of the increasing preference for natural products, intoxication induced by consumption of honey will increase in the future."

    Just a spoonful of the wrong honey can cause problems, according to researchers, who report their findings this week in the American Journal of Emergency Medicine.

    Mad honey poisoning is most prevalent in honey from the Black Sea region of Turkey. Compounds called grayanotoxins, found in the nectar of rhododendrons, mountain laurels and azaleas, are thought to be responsible for the disease. Though harmless to bees, they are psychoactive and poisonous to humans. Affected honey is said to have a very bitter taste.

    Mad honey disease is among the rarest afflictions in the world, but it appears to be on the increase.

    Only 58 cases have been reported worldwide, but eight people were treated in 2005 alone...

    Mad honey poisoning is most prevalent in honey from the Black Sea region of Turkey. Compounds called grayanotoxins, found in the nectar of rhododendrons, mountain laurels and azaleas, are thought to be responsible for the disease. Though harmless to bees, they are psychoactive and poisonous to humans. Affected honey is said to have a very bitter taste...."


    I wonder what mead-making would do to the grayanotoxins??

    Plenty to be said for tasting your honey before you make mead with it, eh?

    Grow fungi. It's fun.

  2. #2

    Default Re: Scientists warn of 'mad honey disease' and I am not making this up!

    Pliny mentions mead made from "mad honey" and there seem to be other references (listed below). Don't try it!

    I posted on this subject on the Mead Lovers Digest some time back -- here's the post from MLD # 734:

    -----------------[snip!]----------------------

    Subject: Mad Honey! From: Dan McFeeley
    Date: Tue, 6 Apr 1999 09:20:51 -0500

    My wife Melissa is subscribed to an Internet discussion group on the Ancient Near East, and pointed out a request for references on "Mad Honey" to me. I posted a few citations (listed at the end of this post) and then got a request to summarize the articles. I thought MLD members might be interested in the subject also.


    <><><><><><><><><><>
    <><><><><><><><>
    Dan McFeeley



    Date: Tue, 06 Apr 1993 10:01:45
    To: ANE (Ancient Near East)

    From: Dan McFeeley
    Subject: Re: ane Mad Honey (long!)

    At 12:41 AM 4/2/99 -0500, Judith Weingarten wrote:
    >Message text written by Dan McFeeley
    >>>Leach, David. "That's Why the Lady is a Tramp,"
    >>>Journal of the American Rhododendron Society,
    >>>October 1982, pp. 151-152.
    >>
    >>Mayor, Adrienne. "Mad Honey!" Archaeology, vol 48,
    >>#6, November/December 1995, pp. 32-40.<
    >>
    >>For those of us without easy access to the Jr of Am
    >>Rhododendron Soc, or even Arch., could you tell us
    >>what are the (claimed) effects of eating raw honey?
    >>
    >>It sounds fascinating.
    >>
    >>Judith


    Sure!

    The problem is not so much eating raw, or organic honey, but the nectar source of the honey. Certain plants are toxic and if the toxin is also in the nectar of the flower, honey produced by it is also toxic. Kenneth Lampe, writing in the Journal of the American Medical Association, warns that the most likely sources for honey poisonings are small operation apiaries or farms. Experienced beekeepers are generally aware of any toxic floral sources in their area and take the necessary steps to prevent their honey from becoming a source for toxic poisoning, such as monitoring the produce and blending the honey from varying nectar sources in sufficient quantities to eliminate any danger from toxicity from the local flora.

    Raw, or unprocessed honey can present other dangers to consumers. Honey has a water content of about 17 or 18%, which is too high an osmotic pressure for micro organisms to grow and reproduce. It does contain the spores of wild yeasts and bacteria, including botulism spores, as well as various pollen grains from the nectar source. People with allergies can have a reaction to certain types of honey, and honey can be dangerous to children under one year of age due to the immaturity of the immune system and G.I. tract. Commercial processing can reduce these risks, but honey of any kind should never be given to children under one year of age.

    The recorded history of the flowering rhododendron as a source of honey poisonings goes back several millennia. The ill fortunes of Xenophon, author of the Anabasis, brilliant military leader and a former member of the circle of students who followed Socrates, may be one of the more well known instances of honey poisonings. In 401 B.C., after a disastrous campaign in Persia, Xenophon was elected to take command of 10,000 Greek soldiers. He lead them through mountains of Kurdistan, through Georgia and then Armenia. They made camp in the territory of Colchis, two days march from Trebizond, where they noticed a large number of beehives. After feasting on the honey they raided from the hives, the soldiers became "like intoxicated madmen," were seized with fits of vomiting, became weak, disoriented, and collapsed by the thousands. "A great despondency prevailed," he wrote, until they recovered a few days later and moved westward to friendlier territory.

    Pompey's armies, in 67 B.C., did not fare as well. While campaigning against Mithridates, the king of Pontus, he camped near Trebizond, close to where Xenophon's soldiers had camped three hundred years ago. Allies of Mithridates, the Heptakometes, placed toxic honeycombs along Pompey's route.

    The same scenario was repeated, and Pompey's soldiers were massacred. The incident is recorded in Strabo's Geography . A similar ruse was used against Russian foes of Olga of Kieve in 946 A.D. Five thousand were massacred after accepting several tons of fermented honey from her followers. Tartar soldiers were cut down by Russians in 1489 after stopping at an abandoned camp and drinking from the casks of mead they found there.

    The nectar source for what came to be known as "mad honey" was a species of rhododendron well known in the Black Sea region. The Roman naturalist, Pliny wrote of the toxic honey of the region, calling it 'meli maenomenon,' or "mad honey" and noting that, although the people of the area were able to pay a large tribute of beeswax to the Romans every year, they were unable to sell their honey due to its poisonous quality. Pliny was also one of the first writers to attribute the toxic source of the honey to the native rhododendron, azalea and oleander plants. Dioscorides, a Greek physician whose De Materia Medica became a major herbal reference for physicians over the next 1,500 years, also noted the toxic nature of honey produced in the Black Sea region and the flowers which produced the toxin.

    Many modern writers considered themselves more enlightened and lightly discounted the idea of mad honey. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica of 1929: "In all likelihood the symptoms described by these old writers were due to overeating," or to eating honey "on an empty stomach." On the other hand, in the Transactions of the American Philosophical Society (vol. 5 1802), Benjamin Barton gave a detailed report of known cases of toxic honey poisoning in the U.S. The symptoms he described, dizziness, disorientation, pain in the GI tract, convulsions, profuse perspiration, vomiting, closely matched the descriptions of the Classical writers. Former confederate surgeon J. Grammer wrote in Gleanings in Bee Culture (1875) of cases of southern soldiers poisoned by honey. Again, he described symptoms of tingling, blurred vision, nausea, and loss of muscle control which subsided in a few days, just as had been recorded in ancient times.

    P.C. Plugge, in 1891, was able to isolate the toxic compound in the honey from Trebizond and identified it as andromedetoxin, now known as acetylandromedol, a type of grayanotoxin. Pliny was verified; these toxins are known to occur in Mediterranean oleander, members of the heath family (Ericaceae) which includes the rhododendron, azaleas of the Black Sea and Caucasus area, and the mountain laurel of the Eastern United States and Pacific Northwest.

    Grayanotoxins act as breathing inhibitors and hypnotics that act upon the central nervous system. Their effect is to bind to sodium channels in cell membranes, an important mechanism governing muscle and nerve cell activation and deactivation. As a result, heart action, muscular control,
    and the nervous system are greatly affected, according to the amount of toxin taken into the body. Death is rare, but has occurred. Symptoms begin with tingling, numbness, dizziness, impaired speech, and even hallucinations such as whirling lights. With greater amounts of ingested toxin, victims experience vertigo, delirium, nausea and vomiting, impaired breathing, bradycardia (dangerously low heartbeat), hypotension (a drop in blood pressure), cyanosis (blue color to the skin due to impairment of the respiratory and circulatory systems), muscle paralysis and unconscious. In severe cases, ventricular tachycardia (abnormally high contraction of the lower ventricular chambers of the heart) compounded by contractions of the heart out of sync with the sinus node, the primary pace maker of the heart, can occur.

    Toxicity levels vary according to the species of rhododendron. Some are highly toxic, such as the species that blooms so profusely in the Black Sea region, and some are mildly toxic or even inactive. Poisonings from ingestion of the plant or its nectar are extremely rare, and are more commonly encountered in instances of toxic honey ingestion. Given the care of beekeepers to prevent their honey from being contaminated by toxic local flora, these cases are generally accidental. They are common enough, however, on the northern Pacific coast for emergency
    room departments to consider honey poisoning as a differential diagnosis to be ruled out in cases presenting as acute myocardial infarction. Treatment in these cases generally focuses on the cardiac symptoms of altered heart rate and hypotension, with careful monitoring in the event
    that the cardiac symptoms are severe enough to require a temporary pacemaker. Poison control data bases used by hospital emergency rooms in all parts of the country will have some mention of toxic honey. Victims generally recover within a few hours, with the symptoms subsiding at most in a few days. Again, death from honey poisoning occurs very rarely in the total number of recorded cases, and is dependent on the amount of honey ingested.

    Honey poisonings in the writings of Greek and Roman authors are usually associated in the springtime. Longus, a romantic poet of the 2nd century A.D., for example, sung of the kiss of his lover, comparing it with "the madness of new honey." Descriptions of mad honey, however, varied. Benjamin Barton thought it was usually reddish in color, some ancient descriptions pointed to an acid or bitter taste. Others said it was indistinguishable from good honey, or worse, that a single honey comb might contain both toxic honey and good honey. John Ambrose, state
    apiculturist in North Carolina, has pointed out that bees will usually bypass Ericacae plants when there are flowers with higher sugar and nectar content available. Rhododendrons bloom early in the spring, and sometimes
    are a dominating area flora. When these are the only flowers available to ranging bees, the honey will be toxic, particularly in the springtime. "Green," or unripened honey, i.e., uncapped honey whose water content has
    not yet been reduced by the bees, seems to be the most suspect honey for toxicity.

    Although the dangers of mad honey were familiar to natives of the areas where it was well known, it was not shunned altogether. Pliny wrote that well aged 'meli maenomenon' made a good mead. The people of the Caucasus area have used toxic honey for centuries to add to alcoholic drinks. The purpose was to intensify the alcoholic effect. Toxic honey was known as 'deli bal' in Turkey and was a major Black Sea export in the eighteenth century. Toxic honey, known as 'miel fou' to consumers in Europe, was shipped in amounts of 25 tons yearly, to be used in European taverns. The size of the dose determined the effect, recreational drug or strong poison.

    Adrienne Mayor, in his article titled "Mad Honey," published in the Nov/Dec 1995 issue of Archaeology, offers some fascinating speculations about the use of mad honey among the Greeks. Roman writers, he states, noted
    that the Pythia at Delphia used laurel leaves, either burned or chewed, to induce the ecstatic state in which the future was prophesied. Suggesting instances where the use of grayanotoxins may have gone poorly, he cites Plutarch's observation that Pythias often died young, or a trance that
    went terribly out of control. In the 2nd century A.D., according to Plutarch, the Pythia had become terribly disoriented, rushed about shrieking, and then collapsed and died. The meaning of the word laurel is unclear. The Greek word is 'Daphne,' which can include plants native to Greece that are poisonous, causing stupor, convulsions, and even death. Laurel and bay are terms for species with similar characteristics such as dark, glossy, and evergreen type leaves, but include diverse species, such as rhododendrons, according to Mayor. He states that if the Pythia were using a plant to assist their ecstatic states, it was likely one of the flowering plants of the Ericacae family.

    Mayor also advances the proposition that women who took part in religious rites made use of mad honey, or mead with added mad honey. The _Homeric Hymn to Hermes_, composed between the 8th and 6th centuries B.C., describes bee-priestesses, or 'melissai,' who revealed the future under the influence of "maddening" honey. These melissai lived by the cliffs of Mount Parnassos and fed on 'meli chloron,' food of the gods. Divinely maddened, they are inspired to speak the truth. But if they are deprived of the divine honeycomb they cannot prophesy.

    'Chloron' is usually translated as "golden" or "liquid," suggesting a mead, but Mayor points out that 'chloron' can also indicate "green," as in fresh or uncured. The 'meli' here can also mean the green unripened honey of the spring, or mad honey. The hymn also compares the religious frenzy of
    the melissai to that of the Maenads, female followers of Dionysos. In the 5th century, playwright Euripedes wrote of the Maenads as waving wands flowing with honey and who drank an intoxicating mixture of honey and alcohol to achieve a prophetic state of mind. Mayor further speculates that, because the Pythia at Delphi were also known as 'melessai,' or bee-prophetesses, it is possible that mad honey, or mead spiked with mad honey, was used to inspire the prophecies of the Delphic oracle.


    This is a fairly loose summary of the references I'd posted earlier. My wife Melissa (coincidently enough!) is the subscriber to this list, and she pointed out Ken Stein's post because of my interest in mead making. I'd be interested if other list members have any other comments on this subject.



    Barton, Benjamin Smith. "Some Account of the Poisonous and Injurious Honey of North America," Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, vol 5, 1802, pp. 51-70.

    Lampe, Kenneth F. "Rhododendrons, Mountain Laurel, and Mad Honey," Journal of the American Medical Association, Vol. 259, #13, April 1 1988, p. 2009.

    Leach, David. "Ancient Curse of the Rhododendron," American Horticulturist, Vol. 51, 1972, pp. 20-29.

    Leach, David. "That's Why the Lady is a Tramp," Journal of the American Rhododendron Society, October 1982, pp. 151-152.

    Mayor, Adrienne. "Mad Honey!" Archaeology, vol 48, #6, November/December 1995, pp. 32-40.

    Mirkin, Gabe. "Side Effects of Raw Honey," Journal of the American Medical Association, Vol. 266, #19, November 20, 1991, p. 2766.


    <><><><><><><><><><>
    <><><><><><><><>
    Dan McFeeley

    "Meon an phobail a thogail trid an chultur"
    (The people's spirit is raised through culture)

  3. #3
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    Default Re: Scientists warn of 'mad honey disease' and I am not making this up!

    Wow. What an interesting article. I'm glad beekeepers are on the alert.

    Doesn't sound like a hugely widespread problem of a sort that we meadmakers would have to constantly worry about. That was my first thought: how far up the daily priority fret list should I put this?

    Thanks Dan.
    Grow fungi. It's fun.

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