Deep in the forests of the Himalayas, the World’s largest bee is making honey that’ll knock your socks off. So precious is this honey that locals in China and Nepal risk their lives to harvest and sell it to wealthy asian men and curious tourists. But what is all the fuss about ‘mad honey’ and what makes it so special?
Mad honey, also known as red honey, is produced by the Himalayan cliff bee (Apis dorsata laboriosa), the largest bee in the world at just over 3cm long. It is the highland subspecies of a relatively common bee, Apis dorsata, however only the highland species has access to the Rhododendron flowers that make it’s honey mad. Many Rhododendron species contain grayanotoxins, which is why they are widely known to be poisonous to humans. In the highlands of the himalayas; Bhutan, Yunnan (China), India and Nepal, the rare Himalayan cliff bee lives alongside Rhododendrons (e.g. Rhododendron luteum and Rhododendron ponticum), and frequently collects nectar from their poisonous flowers.
Honey made from the nectar of the poisonous Rhododendron flowers comes with some pretty potent properties. Mad honey is known to be a powerful hallucinogen and recreational drug as well as being ascribed many medicinal features. The honey is thought to be effective in treating everything from hypertension and diabetes to poor sexual performance, when taken in small doses. In large doses it can be highly toxic and even fatal.
In small amounts, the honey is intoxicating, giving a feeling of relaxation and a pleasant dizziness and tingling sensation. It can be hallucinogenic, although there is little scientific literature regarding it’s effects. When taken in larger doses, however, mad honey can cause Rhododendron poisoning (or honey intoxication) which is characterised by vomiting, progressive muscle weakening and heart irregularities.
In 67BC, mad honey was used by King Mithridates’ army who left chunks of it out for the Roman enemy to find; whilst tripping, the Roman army was easily defeated!
The properties of mad honey, both pleasant and harmful, are due to the grayanotoxins in it, derived from the Rhododendron nectar. Grayanotoxins are a group of toxins produced by Rhododendrons and plants in the Ericaceae family. Because of it’s intoxicating and medicinal effects, mad honey fetches a high price – often four or five times that of normal honey. Unfortunately, the bees have not made it easy for locals to make a profit. In the Himalayan mountains, above altitudes of 2500m, Himalayan cliff bees build enormous nests on the overhanging rocks of Southwestern facing cliffs. These huge nests, up to 5ft in diameter and containing 60kg of honey, are extraordinarily difficult to reach. But the honey inside is so valuable that many local people try anyway. They collect two batches of honey a year, in spring and autumn, although spring time is the only time the honey is truly mad.
The documentary shows the remarkable lengths people have gone to to access this rare and unique honey:
Claire is a Freelance Science Writer and Communicator, and Innovation Officer for the London NERC Doctoral Training Partnership. She created Curious Meerkat in 2009, and has also written for a variety of publications including The Scientist, Biosphere and Nature Blogs. She completed her PhD in 2013, studying the social behaviour of dinosaur ants.