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Can mad honey get you high? A bee expert reveals the answer

Winnie-the-Pooh could never... right?

Photo taken in Felde, Germany
Dirk Hoffmann / EyeEm/EyeEm/Getty Images

Natural psychedelics aren’t too hard to find if you know where to look. With the right mushrooms, toads, or plants, a trip is within reach. One of the lesser known natural psychedelics comes from a plant but is most ingested as a food — honey. Yes, there’s naturally occurring psychedelic honey in the world, though it’s not the easiest to come by.

What is mad honey? And what makes it psychoactive?

This rare substance contains a psychoactive element. Known as deli bal in the original Turkish, mad honey is a reddish bee-flower byproduct whose hallucinogenic properties come from its origin plants. Entomologist Arathi Seshadri reveals the dark side of the sweet stuff.

The secret ingredient is grayanotoxin, a neurotoxin named for nineteenth-century American botanist Asa Gray. Also known as andromedotoxin, acetylandromedol, or rhodotoxin, grayanotoxins come from plants in the Ericaceae family. This includes Rhododendron, Pieris, Agarista, and Kalmia genera, according to Seshadri. Indeed, this toxin is present in the flower’s nectar, so honey that bees produce from this flower contains grayanotoxin.

Other components of Rhododendron contain these neurotoxins too. So far, researchers have isolated more than 25 types of this toxin in rhododendrons, though it appears grayanotoxins 1 and 3 are the primary toxic segments.

Grayanotoxins are compounds known as cyclic diterpenes that work their magic by binding to voltage-gated sodium ion channels in cells. The toxins basically hold open sodium channels, keeping them activated continuously. This causes a state of depolarization in the cell, allowing sodium ions to flow freely within it instead of remaining polarized to one part of the cell. This leads to dizziness, general muscle weakness, and potentially paralysis.

Sodium channels of cells in skeletal muscles are more responsive to these toxins than those in heart muscles, though grayanotoxins can affect both these types of cells as well as the central nervous system.

Commercially sold honey often comes from many sources, so any toxins are heavily diluted to the point of ineffectiveness. What’s more, rhododendron contains varying levels of grayanotoxins depending on the time of year, so a bee would need to pollinate almost exclusively rhododendron flowers to make mad honey.

What does mad honey feel like?

Don’t worry about eating mad honey by mistake. It’s a reddish color and tastes bitter, burning the throat. Mad honey is known to make users feel dizzy and nauseated. Other effects include blurred vision, vomiting, excessive sweating, convulsion, headache, paralysis, and more.

Warning: Experimentation group Erowid recommends against consuming any part of the plant. And for good reason: Mad honey goes from medicinal to poisonous very quickly. Poisoning by mad honey — called mad honey disease — can be characterized by dangerously low blood pressure and interruption of electrical impulses between different parts of the heart.

“In humans, intoxication is rarely lethal, in contrast to cattle and pet poisoning cases,” Seshadri says. Lethal or not, mad honey ingestion can lead to irregular heartbeat, or arrhythmias, which can be life-threatening.

Most mad honey comes from Nepal and Turkey, though other countries where intoxication has been reported include China, Philippines, Korea, Indonesia, Japan, Austria, Germany, Brazil, and the Pacific Northwest region of North America.

Effects can come on within 20 minutes to three hours of consumption, and it could take several days for someone to recover fully from the disease. However, grayanotoxins are metabolized and excreted fairly quickly, so a lower-dose intoxication lasts about one day.

What is mad honey used for?

This psychedelic honey has been used as an aphrodisiac, an alternative treatment for GI disorders like dyspepsia and gastritis, and hypertension.

The first recorded instance of mad honey poisoning is from 401 B.C.E. by Athenian military commander Xenophon. Turkish King Mithradates also used mad honey as a weapon against Pompey the Great in 67 B.C.E.

This byproduct can be found floating around the Internet, but remember it can be dangerous to consume. If you’re looking for a more faithful Winnie-the-Pooh experience, stick to regular supermarket honey.

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