Locals in China, India, and Nepal risk their lives to obtain the golden liquid that drips from very particular hives deep in the Himalayan forest. This honey is so precious it is called ‘mad honey’ for its interesting properties, coveted the world over.
Honey from the Himalayan cliff bee (Apis dorsata laboriosa) results when the largest bee in the world (just over 3cm long) scavenges pollen from Rhododendron flowers. The highland species has access to the flowers, which are normally highly poisonous to humans. The bee has had little alteration to its genes since its habitat is largely undisturbed in the Himalayan Mountains.
Even mountain dwellers with a shrewdness for climbing would have a difficult time gathering honey from the ‘mad honey’ hives, though. The Cliff Bee mostly nests at altitudes between 2,500 and 3,000 m (8,200 and 9,800 ft), building very large nests under overhangs on the south-western faces of vertical cliffs.
This Himalayan honeybee’s wares are as valuable as gold, nonetheless. Many Rhododendron species contain grayanotoxins, which is why they are widely known to be poisonous to humans, but the honey made from the same flower has some pretty potent effects on the average Joe or Jane.
‘Mad honey’ is known to be a powerful hallucinogen and recreational drug as well as being ascribed many medicinal features. The honey is thought to be effective in treating everything from hypertension and diabetes to poor sexual performance, when taken in small doses. In large doses; however, it can be highly toxic and even fatal. There are legends of yogis living in the area that were like medicine men who could administer the right does to humans seeking the flower’s more desirable qualities without killing themselves by eating the honey.
In small amounts, the honey is intoxicating, giving a feeling of relaxation and a pleasant dizziness and tingling sensation. With slightly larger amounts, it can be hallucinogenic, although there is little scientific literature regarding it’s effects. When taken in larger doses, however, mad honey can cause Rhododendron poisoning (or honey intoxication) which is characterised by vomiting, progressive muscle weakening and heart irregularities.