Honey Madness

Reader Erica wonders why, if bees have evolved such an effective defense against microscpoic honey thieves, they couldn’t have evolved a more effective defense against larger ones like beekeepers. You know, Erica, I’m not entirely convinced that they aren’t working on that very thing right now. Since antiquity, honeys harvested from parts of northern Turkey have been notorious for their toxic effects. The reason, because they’re produced from the nectar either of of two species of rhododendron, R. luteum and R. ponticum which is known to contain compounds known as grayanotoxins.

These toxins aren’t poisonous to bees, however in humans they cause weakness, dizziness, flop sweat and vomiting. In some cases they can cause extreme low blood pressure, irregular heartbeat, shock and even death. Greek historian and mercenary Xenophon recorded, in about 400 B.C., the exploits of a Greek army traveling through what is now Turkey. It seems that some of the soldiers found and raided several hives along the way and were afflicted with vomiting and what has since been called “honey madness” or “mad honey disease.”

These sorts of stories make some people paranoid about rhododendron nectar here in the States, though there’s never been a recorded case of mad honey disease in this part of the world. That’s not to say that there aren’t other plants in the US whose nectar is potentially toxic to humans, however incidents of honey intoxication are extremely rare and almost never fatal. All of which means bees need to try a lot harder if they want to put us off their crop.

7 thoughts on “Honey Madness”

  1. I read a mystery where the crime was committed by poisoning the victim with honey made from oleander blossoms. I don’t know if it would work, but I do know the plant is highly toxic.

  2. Its a bit of a misunderstanding about how evolution works Joe. Bees can’t decide that humans are threat & will themselves to create a defense. What might happen is that a group of bees experience some variation – lets for arguments sake say they exist by making honey from a plant that is poisonous to humans – that gives them some advantage over those that don’t have that variation. Say humans start taking so much honey from other bees that they can’t support their hives while the ‘poison’ ones are doing very well & therefore outbreeding the non-poisonous ones. Eventually if the predation was bad enough only the poisonous honey producers would be left.

    The grasshopper mouse is not immune to scorpion stings because his ancestors thought it was a good idea. They are immune because some mutation millennia ago created one that was & they passed that on & the descendants had a larger food source so they became the dominate form.

    1. Frankly, if you’d seen what I saw working with my hives, you might not doubt that bees act with purpose when it comes to home defense. It’s a documented fact that bee behavior becomes more sophisticated as hives get larger, almost as though each individual bee was a little cell a the larger brain. I would not be at all surprised to learn that somewhere in the Köro?lu Mountains dwells a hive that not only contains a fully-funcitoning R&D lab, but is also practicing Six Sigma process improvement.

      I’m just sayin’.

      – Joe

      1. No doubt bees act rationally for bees. But evolution does not act because an organism thinks of a clever change.

  3. I have to wonder if they’re really “trying” that hard–being useful to humans is a pretty good adaptive trait for the past few thousand years.

    1. Hey, it’s worked for dogs, pigs, cows and sheep! Not a bad idea thought, Erika!

      – Joe

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