Humans and honey have a long historical association. Beekeeping emerged in ancient Egypt nearly 10,000 years ago, but evidence of wild honey collection dates even further. For nearly 15,000 years, humans attempting to satisfy their sweet tooth have sought after and consumed the literal liquid gold, sometimes risking life and limb to do so.
For the average and infrequent honey consumer, mass-produced honey found on store shelves may be somewhat one-note. But honey in its raw form can take on complex flavor profiles depending on where the bees have foraged. Connoisseurs may seek a eucalyptus honey for mixing with tea to give their beverage a light menthol aroma. Bees that have foraged on coffee blossoms produce a rich, dark amber honey with a mild coffee flavor. Honey aficionados will pay top-dollar for specialty honey to suit their specific culinary needs; but no honey fetches a price like the coveted Himalayan cliff honey.
Himalayan cliff honey is produced in the Himalayan mountains by the world’s largest honeybee, Apis dorsata laboriosa. The bees nest on sheer, vertical cliffs at 2,500 to 3,000 meters (8,200 to 9,800 ft), making collection a dangerous, potentially fatal, task. The honey is traditionally harvested by the indigenous Gurung people of Nepal, who, for generations, would scale the vertical faces of cliffs using little more than ropes and bamboo ladders. Considering the effort involved, it seems reasonable that himalayan cliff honey would fetch an enormous price. But this particular honey is prized for another reason. Himalayan cliff honey, also known as ‘mad honey,’ is a hallucinogen.
The Himalayan cliff bee forages on rhododendron, a globally-occuring, woody flowering shrub that thrives in the region. Rhododendrons produce a unique neurotoxin called grayanotoxin that can overstimulate the central nervous system, causing a myriad of physiological effects that can range from euphoric hallucinations to rapid heart rate and vomiting. Since honey is a concentrated form of floral nectar, the grayanotoxin present in the final product can induce the same hallucinatory effects. For centuries, the honey has been used medicinally by the Gurang; but mad honey has earned a place in military history as well.
Far from the Himalayas in the Black Sea region of Turkey, mad honey production appears in the historical record as far back as 401 BCE. According to Xenophon of Athens, Greek soldiers raided Turkish beehives while passing through the region. Unbeknownst to them, Turkish beekeepers were rearing their bees on rhododendrons (which flourish near the Black Sea as well) and the soldiers quickly succumbed to bouts of vomiting, diarrhea, and hallucinations. Luckily for them, the effects wore off eventually, and the soldiers were ultimately left unscathed. But the event did not go unnoticed, and centuries later mad honey became a military tactic.
In 69 BCE., Roman general Pompey the Great marched his army through the same region. Again, soldiers raided the beehives and fell victim to the physiological effects; but this time, local forces were waiting in the wings, and the Roman soldiers were defeated while in their hallucinatory haze.
The demise of Pompey the Great’s army is, as far as anyone knows, the only deaths attributed to mad honey. Yet the substance is still outlawed in the regions surrounding Turkey and Nepal, where strict drug laws have driven the black market price up to over $60 per pound. Yet for adventurous honey connoisseurs, no price is too high for a taste of the infamous mad honey.