March 11, 2012

Food Wars: How Toxic Honey Became the First Culinary Weapon of War.

(Photo: Cat Jaffee)

Honey delirium.

The Ten Thousand look more like one hundred. Many are limping, their bodies crumbling beneath the dense vegetation and steep, bramble-covered cliffs.

We were once an army that so many had feared. Now our rib cages bulge beneath our torn tunics. Our clothes are loosely held together by tired thread and caked blood. As we near the top of a hill, our bodies droop to the ground, our mouths almost breathing in the mud… until… we see it.

It’s true.


Fatigue is replaced with endorphins, relief, a semblance of hope….

Our men, the Ten Thousand, the frail remaining army of Cyrus, head towards the smoke with every intention of raiding the people nearby of their food, water and supplies. However, while marching down the hillside we discover deep cavernous circular beehives. Their circumference is the length of one man, and they drip with a fragrant golden honey. Forgetting our initial target, our men refocus their efforts on preparing fires in great haste to smoke out the bees and feast.

As soon as most of the bees have fled the site, our men crowed around the hives like dogs, scooping the honey into their mouths, crunching elastic comb between their teeth. Sticky nectar clogs their noses and drips down their chins as relief rushes over their faces. The sensation however is short-lived.

Soon they are stumbling, in some kind of haze they bump against trees and trip in weary nausea. All at once, I hear an unbearable moaning ripple across the Ten Thousand. Hands grip at my ankles as they crawl towards me, “Xenophon!” They cry my name, “Xenophon!” I don’t understand. I crouch to get a better look at their faces as they collapse on the ground; some vomiting, others screaming under the effects of wild hallucination.

In the distance, I see local villagers of the Black Sea watching our flailing army without a hint of surprise on their faces. “It’s the honey,” I whisper.

But it’s too late. No one can hear me.

(Photo: Cat Jaffee)

This is what I imagine the author and philosopher Xenophon witnessed when he marched with the Ten Thousand, a Greek army who stumbled upon Deli Bal in the Black Sea’s Trabzon region during 401 BC, on their return march to Rome.

Deli Bal, literally meaning “Crazy Honey”, is a type of honey produced from bees that have visited a variety of rhododendron flower (rhododendron ponticum or rhododendron luteum) that is indigenous to the Black Sea and highly toxic. Its resulting honey can induce illness, nausea, and hallucinations within the consumer.

While most bee species would die from this plant’s high toxicity, the Caucasian bees of the Black Sea have become accustomed to its nectar; and as a result, for thousands of years, these bees have produced a honey that has made its mark on history.

The Ten Thousand were the first to feel this infamous honey’s wrath. And later the people of the Black Sea used the toxic honey trick again against Pompey’s Army during the Third Midratic War (67 BC). Accounts of Deli Bal poisoning continue well into the present with annual headlines reporting that “Mad Honey Disease,” has struck again, causing unassuming honey eaters nausea, toxicity poisoning, and queasiness. Even in the most recent Sherlock Holmes movie, the famous detective masks a mock death using the rhododendron nectar.

Because Deli Bal has the same color and smell as any generic honey, it is difficult to distinguish the substance as anything out of the ordinary. Friends from Artvin have told me that they have accidentally eaten Deli Bal a number of times unaware that it was anything but regular mountain honey. Only from experiencing slight hallucinations afterwards and a quick visit to the emergency room did they realize what kind of honey they had consumed.

(Photo: Cat Jaffee)

In general, this honey is not for sale and most local beekeepers know how to keep it out of their regular honey supply. However, if you want to give it a try—like many things in Turkey—often all you have to do is ask.

While I have read that in most cases, Deli Bal is not fatal, I remember when I was writing my list of fears of everything that could go wrong in my move to Turkey, “Death by honey” was number eighteen. So you can imagine my hesitation when I received an offer to taste organic Deli Bal in Artvin. I hadn’t eaten breakfast, I was tired, and my stomach was already a little queasy with hunger. Probably not the best idea but, I concluded it was better to try the Deli Bal while I was still within close driving range of an emergency room.

Tamam, I nodded my head to my host. I prepped my spoon and took a small bite of history. The effects were real: slight hallucinations, light-headedness, loss of balance, more-than-usual giddiness, and faintly blurred vision. My symptoms lasted approximately two hours until I dozed into a comfortable nap.

I woke up half an hour later… fortunately!


[Originally posted on Balyolu: The Honey Road]


Editor: Andrea B.


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