Sunday, May 27, 2012

Poison Honey and the Importance of the Classics

My husband brought home a beehive this week so he could learn to become a beekeeper (his latest hobby).  We have multitudes of rhododendrons blooming in the front yard right now and, remembering my Xenophon, when we went to Glory Bee Foods to get some beekeeping supplies, I asked the salesperson if we were supposed to keep the bees shut up during the rhododendron bloom?  She seemed totally clueless so I reminded her of the fate of Xenophon's men who became severely sickened from eating honey produced by bees feasting on rhododendron pollen. She said she had never heard anything about it.  I told her she should brush up on her ancient history.

Xenophon, author of "Anabasis" that
relates the famous March of the Ten 
Thousand.  Image courtesy of 
Wikimedia Commons.
"The effect upon the soldiers who tasted the combs was, that they all went for the nonce quite off their heads, and suffered from vomiting and diarrhoea, with a total inability to stand steady on their legs. A small dose produced a condition not unlike violent drunkenness, a large one an attack very like a fit of madness, and some dropped down, apparently at death's door. So they lay, hundreds of them, as if there had been a great defeat, a prey to the cruellest despondency. But the next day, none had died; and almost at the same hour of the day at which they had eaten they recovered their senses, and on the third or fourth day got on their legs again like convalescents after a severe course of medical treatment." - Anabasis by Xenophon, Book IV Chapter VIII

I also pointed out that if she needed a more recent reference she should check out the campaigns of Pompey the Great as well since, he, too, failed to learn from history and suffered from the effects of rhododendron honey when he and his troops were campaigning in Turkey in the 1st century BCE.

"As king of Pontus and a scholar of toxicology, Mithridates was well aware of the deadly properties of the rhododendron honey of his kingdom.  He would have kept some in his royal laboratory of pharmaka and, as noted earlier, he may have included it in his mithridatium...Mithridates would also have known of Xenophon's misadventure with the poisonous honey..."
Mithridates VI of Pontus, The Poison King
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

"In about 65 BCE, Pompey's army was approaching Colchis.  Mithridates' allies there, the Heptakometes, were described by Strabo as 'utterly savage' mountain barbarians, dwelling in tree forts and living on 'the flesh of wild animals and nuts.'  The tribe was feared for attacking wayfarers - suddenly leaping down on them like leopards from their tree houses.  The Heptakometes may have received specific orders from Mithridates on how to ambush the Roman army.  What we do know for a fact is that they gathered up great numbers of wild honeycombs dripping with toxic honey and placed them all along Pompey's route.  The Roman soldiers stopped to enjoy the sweets and immediately lost their senses.  Reeling and babbling, the men collapsed with vomiting and diarrhea and lay on the ground unable to move.  The Heptakometes easily wiped out about one thousand of Pompey's men." - Greek Fire, Poison Arrows, and Scorpion Bombs: Biological and Chemical Warfare in the Ancient World by Adrienne Mayor

I saw an article last week listing the ten most worthless disciplines to pursue in higher education and among them was archaeology and anthropology.  It looks to me like this is a prime example of information from the past that has direct modern implications and could be one of many examples that could refute such nonsense!

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Carolina said...

I believe that only some rhododendron species produce grayanotoxins, and as those species are native to only a few parts of the world, you *probably* have nothing to worry about (depending on where you live, of course)

Mary Harrsch said...

Carolina, thanks for your comforting words. I'm not sure about the exact species of rhododendrons we have in Oregon and the ones I have in my front yard are, of course, hybridized. But our forests are full of natural rhododendrons and when comparing them to pictures of those growing in Asia Minor (Turkey), they look identical both in bloom and in leaf appearance.

Claudia Guajardo Valenzuela said...

Fascinating information. Thank you very much for sharing, as I was thinking to get into beekeeping when I retire. And I do like rhododendrons! Thanks again for such useful details.

Your blog, which I just visited for the first time is quite beautiful and interesting. I will start to read it from now on.

Best regards,