The Himalayas — Deep in the Himalayas, living in the sanctuary of a high altitude and pristine forest, are some of the world’s largest bees. The honey they make is so precious that tribes from China to Nepal routinely risk their lives trying to gather the nectar from cliff faces where the bees make their hives. Bees also make this coveted honey in remote areas of Turkey’s Black Sea region.
Why is this sweet aphrodisiac so prized? The Himalayan cliff bee (Apis dorsata laboriosa), and Turkey’s bees similarly conjure honey that would make LSD, psilocybin, and mescaline trips seem like a carnival kiddie ride.
This mad honey is collected today, but intoxication from the special nectar goes back as early as 401 B.C., when General Xenophon and his Greek army were marching in the Black Sea region and stopped to feast on honey.
Stanford University science historian, Adrienne Mayor, explains that suddenly Xenophon’s men began staggering and “raving like intoxicated mad men, shitting and puking and collapsing by the thousands … we now know [this affliction] was naturally toxic honey.”
At just over 3cm long, the Himalayan cliff bee makes a psychedelic honey, also known as ‘mad honey’ or ‘red honey.’ The bees’ access to Rhododendron flowers gives their honey psychedelic properties. Though Rhododendron flowers contain a phytochemical known to be poisonous to humans, called grayanotoxins — which can cause dizziness, hypotension, and atrial-ventricular block — many who consume ‘mad’ honey in small amounts experience a mystical or out-of-body experience similar to those reported by individuals taking LSD and other psychedelic plants and herbs.
The honey causes hallucinations, but many say it has healing properties. Like many plants, the components of mad honey can be both medicinal or lethal.
The last humans to traverse the Himalayas just before an 8,000 meter mountain peak in Nepal routinely risk their lives to gather this medicine. Their village is surrounded by thick jungle where the cliff bee can be found. These bees only make this special nectar once a year, for approximately one month, when they have been dining on the pollen of the Rhododendron flowers. This makes both the timing of the honey collecting, and the act itself precarious; and is likely why some people are willing to spend thousands of dollars for a small bottle of the bees’ toil and trouble.
Similarly, near a town in Turkey’s Black Sea region during springtime, you can witness beekeepers hauling their hives up mountain slopes until they reach vast fields of cream and magenta rhododendron flowers. Here, they unleash their bees, which pollinate the blossoms and make a kind of honey from them so potent, it’s been used as a weapon of war. In 67 BC, King Mithridates’ army left chunks of “mad honeycomb” in the path of the Roman enemy, who gobbled it up, lost their minds and were promptly slain.
“The compounds involved are not super fun. Not something I would recommend,” biologist Sean McCann explains. “As there are far better and safer hallucinogenic compounds that you can use.”
Others disagree. Mad honey is coveted the world over. In small amounts, the honey is intoxicating, giving a feeling of relaxation and a pleasant dizziness along with a tingling sensation. It has also been credited with treating a number of illnesses from actually curing hypertension and diabetes, to improving sexual performance.
‘Mad’ honey can also offer pleasant hallucinations. This is likely why businessmen from Asia are willing to pay handsomely for it. It isn’t something to lavishly drizzle on your morning breakfast, though — small amounts can be beneficial, but too much and you might suffer from the same fate as King Mithridates’ army.