All right, I confess. One of the modern vices my family indulges in is “binge watching”. Now, of the vices we could partake in, this seems one of the more innocuous. However. since it’s my family, we go for the murder mystery shows like Bones, C.S.I. and Criminal Minds. Of course, one of the downsides to watching programs like Criminal Minds, is that you often find yourself glancing sideways at people you work with, and creating behavioral profiles of them; profiles that are more flattering to some than others! I recently bought a DVD box set of a murder mystery show that I hadn’t seen in years, but was one I thoroughly enjoyed. The shows had been digitally remastered to their original clarity, and I couldn’t wait to stick in a DVD, and sit down for some serious bingeing. In each episode, one or more individuals meet their demise under very strange circumstances that totally baffle the local constabulary. The murders are always solved, and the culprit identified, by an elderly spinster, using local gossip, a deep understanding of human nature, and what would today be called behavioral analysis. I am of course referring to Agatha Christie’s doyen of murder, Miss Marple.
In the county of Cheshire in England, near to where I grew up, was a murder mystery that seemed to come right out of a Miss Marple novel. It involved the grounds of a country estate, three mysterious deaths, and a strong suspicion that poison was involved. The victims, Jet, Adele and Mirabel were not heirs to the family fortune however, but were in fact African Pygmy Goats. It appears that the goats were fed rhododendron leaves, leaves that are toxic to both goats and humans. Although distressing, it turns out that this was not a deliberate act of malicious poisoning, but rather youths who were genuinely unaware of the rhododendrons toxic properties when they fed leaves to the goats. While goats are certainly sensitive to rhododendron, they are generally known for their penchant for eating pretty much anything with impunity, especially things harmful to humans. It is likely this apparent immunity that gave rise to the talisman of the bezoar stone.
Historically, much sought after as a means to ward off the effects of poisons, bezoar stones also make an appearance in Harry Potter, when Professor Snape asks Harry, in his potions lesson, where he could find a bezoar stone. For us muggles, the answer is a goat’s stomach, where the bezoar stone is actually a hair ball removed from the goat’s stomach. Of course, to many people’s detriment, bezoar stones provide no immunity to poison, and not even an immunity for the goats themselves against rhododendron. Now while goats are susceptible to the toxins in rhododendrons, honey bees are remarkably indifferent to the poisons.
Each Spring, along the Black Sea region of eastern Turkey, bee keepers move their hives up onto the mountain slopes so the bees can collect nectar from the areas flowering plants. As it happens, rhododendrons are pretty much one of the few flowers that grow in this region, and so the honey is made almost exclusively from rhododendron blooms. While the bees seem oblivious to the effects of the plant’s nectar, the honey it’s turned into goes by the intriguing name of Mad Honey, due to its dramatic effects on humans, including feelings of euphoria and striking hallucinations. Although most of the Mad Honey produced nowadays is mixed with honey from other regions before sale to the public (thus diluting out the toxins), a few apiarists keep some jars of Mad Honey back, purely for “medicinal purposes”. More than a teaspoon full of the bright red honey though, and severe complications may arise, leading to vomiting, seizures and loss of consciousness.
The toxin responsible is called grayanotoxin, and interferes with sodium channels in nerve cells. Each nerve acts like a tiny battery with a positive and negative side, and it is the switching of the poles that allows a nerve signal to be sent. When resting, sodium is pushed out of the nerve, to maintain a high level outside the cell and a low level inside. When a signal is sent along the neuron, the sodium channels rapidly open, allowing sodium to flood into the cell, swapping the electrical poles, and repeating the electrical signal that propagates down the nerve. When the signal is finished, the sodium channels close, and sodium is pumped back out to restore the resting state of the nerve. Grayanotoxin prevents the closure of the nerve sodium channels, locking them open, precluding the nerve from resetting itself, and stopping any further signals from occurring. When nerves can no longer send signals to communicate with each other within the brain, or to communicate with the muscles of the body, severe complications can arise, including seizures, hallucinations, and even loss of consciousness. When considering modern tools of war, it is hard to imagine that honey could ever have been the secret weapon that laid waste to an impressive army, yet that is exactly what happened almost 2,000 years ago.
In 67 BC, King Mithradates VI, ruler of the Kingdom of Pontus, had become a severe annoyance to the Roman Empire. The Roman legions were supposed to be the best troops on the planet, but Mithradates VI had the audacity to keep defeating the Roman army every time they met. Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, or Pompey the Great to his friends, was a Roman military leader who got fed up with Mithradates always winning battles, and decided to deal with Mithradates once and for all. Pompey and the Roman legions chased Mithradates and his Persian army along the Black Sea, in the area of Mad Honey production. The retreating Persians laid traps by leaving pots of Mad Honey along the side of the road. The Romans, tired and weary, were not ones to look a gift horse in the mouth, and gorged themselves on free honey. As the grayanotoxin took hold, the Romans staggering about in a toxin-induced daze were unable to defend themselves against the returning Persians. Over a thousand Romans were slaughtered, with barely a loss on the other side. So next time you are asked if you would like a little honey, make sure it has not come from the Black Sea, although at $166 a pound, it is fairly unlikely that you would be offered much.