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Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Rhododendron honey (mad honey), Apicoltura Cazzola, Altedo, Italy

I'd heard about rhododendron honey ("mad honey") from others but never came across any- so I started looking for it actively and finally found some from Italy online.

Why is it so special? In a word, grayanotoxin (i.e. grayanotazane-3,5,6,10,14,16-hexol 14-acetate, named after American botanist Asa Grey). It is a chemical found in rhododendron nectar and pollen that is a neurotoxin, and makes its way into the honey. If ingested, even in small quantities (e.g. less than a teaspoon), it can cause "honey intoxication"- mostly light-headedness. In larger quantities it causes perspiration, hallucinations, and vomiting, among other unpleasant things. If you ingest a bit more it causes severe and progressive muscle weakness and paralysis, breathing difficulties and affects the beating of your heart, which can lead to death. Luckily it is rarely fatal in humans; after a day or two most people recover. This is not always the case for animals though; rhododendron leaves also contain grayanotoxin and (mostly) cattle/sheep/goats (who are not long for this world) like to eat them. So if you have any rhododendron bushes (or azaleas, for that matter- same family) and you have a pet that is attracted to eating their leaves, keep them away.

Honey intoxication - and its use as a weapon- has been well documented. Pliny wrote of how the honey was used against the armies of Xenophon (one of Socrates' students) in 401 BCE. There is also an account of how Roman troops (the army of Pompey the Great) were poisoned by toxic honey - from honeycombs deliberately placed along their route- on their way to fight at Heptakometes in Turkey. I guess the Romans didn't think it suspicious that honeycombs just showed up on their route? Does "too good to be true" come to mind? In the end they were delirious, nauseous and thoroughly sick, and didn't put up much of a fight. If you want to see what a mild intoxication looks like, here is a brief documentary by Raphael Treza "Hallucinogen Honey Hunters" involving a group of men harvesting wild rhododendron honey in Nepal:

Be aware that the toxicity of rhododendron honey varies depending on the amount and type of rhododendron nectar in the final honey; rhododendron varieties differ (significantly) in the quantity of grayanotoxins in their leaves, pollen and nectar. In fact some rhododendrons don't produce any grayanotoxins at all. You may be relieved to know that commonly gardened rhododendrons in North America generally have only small amounts of toxin- not enough to render honey super toxic, but if you eat enough of their leaves you may still be quite sick. In fact, one account I read went so far as to caution against using rhododendron twigs to roast marshmallows. So beware!

Rhododendron forest in Ireland
"Pure" toxic rhododendron honey requires large concentrations of rhododendrons that contain grayanotoxins. In addition, the bee population must be adapted to harvest the toxic nectar and pollen without it killing the hive. This all adds up to only a few places that are well known for producing toxic rhododendron honey: the Black Sea region of Turkey (where the honey is known as deli bal), parts of Nepal and the Reunion Island. Not surprisingly, Rhododendron ponticum, a common wild shrub from the Black Sea region, is the most toxic rhododendron (followed by Rhododendron luteum- another resident of Asia Minor).

While I looked for Black Sea rhododendron honey online, I didn't find any. Mine comes from Italy, from the Cazzola Apiary. Given its origins, I suspect it may not be as toxic as Black Sea rhododendron honey, but even so, there are no warning labels or even information about potential toxicity. This brings to mind a report I read that stated that most European cases of honey toxicity are in tourists who bring back honey souvenirs (unlabeled with regard to toxicity) from Turkey.

Altedo, Italy- near Bologna
The Cazzola apiary, where my honey is from, is a family affair that started when two brothers bought a few hives to pollinate local orchards. They now have over 200 hives and produce a variety of single source honeys by "nomadically following blooms." They are located in Altedo, a small town in the Po Valley, which is 7 km from Malabergo and 23 km from Bologna. It is a fertile agricultural area, particularly known for its green asparagus (they have a yearly asparagus festival in Altedo in May). I didn't see any hint of large swaths of rhododendrons in the area, though. I did see that other apiarists harvested rhododendron honey in the Italian Alps, so I suspect that the nomadic hives of the Cazzola apiary may travel north now and again.

rhododendron honey
The rhododendron honey I have is a mellow, mustard brown color and it has already crystallized. It has a heady smell of summer honey, floral with a hint of the bitterness of chestnut honey. The crystals are on the large side and melt into a slightly sweet honey with a slight bitter taste, similar to chestnut honey, intermingled with herbal and floral tones- and then it has an aftertaste not unlike watermelon. The watermelon is a bit weird, but definitely there. And yes, even after a small taste from a toothpick swirl, I'm light headed, in the span of less than 5 minutes. It feels like being in the car too long- I'm a little woozy and it is hard to concentrate. It is not a great feeling. I may be a light weight, but if this is what a tiny taste can do, I'm not inclined to have more, even though, taste-wise, it is an interesting and unusual honey!

1 comment:

  1. Hello people,
    I am from nepal and we are selling this kind of honey in nepal.If anyone interested to buy ,you can contact us at
    or my facebook id
    Fb name: Aayam wagle