Friday, May 4, 2012

Toxic Honey?

Catawba Rhododendron
My grandma was extremely allergic to honey. She developed the allergy when she was about 60 years old and it was so severe that she couldn’t even use soap with honey in it. Some people do have reactions to honey because of the pollen associated with it.    

Honey can be toxic if the nectar source originates from poisonous plants. Toxic rhododendron honey was documented by Xenophon, Aristotle, Strabo, Pliny the Elder and Columella when it poisoned Roman troops. During the first century BC, under the rule of Pompey the Great, soldiers were attacking the Heptakometes in Turkey. It is written that the soldiers became delirious and started vomiting after eating the honey and were easily defeated. In western NC there are so many azaleas, rhododendrons and mountain laurels which potentially can produce toxic honey. There is very little risk because the bees are gathering nectar and pollen from so many sources that the chance of ingesting any quantifiable amount is unlikely. It also isn’t the right time to take honey out of the hive because the bees are building up stores for themselves and most beekeepers are still feeding their bees sugar-water this time of year. Right now the azaleas and rhododendrons are in bloom, but I have seen very few honeybees on them.  Bumblebees are the main pollinators of those plants. Even the blueberries, which are in the same family (Ericaceae) as those other plants, seem to be mainly covered with bumblebees. How do you know you have eaten toxic honey? First of all, you probably had to eat a tremendous amount of it and then you may feel dizzy, weak, have excessive perspiration, nausea, vomiting, low blood pressure, shock, heart rhythm irregularities, convulsions and in very rare instances death. My guess is that you will stop drinking that gallon of honey when you begin to feel a little dizzy.

In New Zealand, honeybees often gather honeydew from a vine hopper insect that feeds on a tutu plant. All parts of the tutu plant are poisonous and when the poison tutin is in honey it can be toxic. The symptoms include vomiting, delirium, giddiness, increased excitability, stupor, coma and violent convulsions. The last recorded deaths from eating honey containing tutin were in the 1890’s.

There are very few documented cases of toxic honey, and I didn’t run across any articles which stated outbreaks of ingesting toxic honey have occurred in the US. Unless the honeybees are living in a location where the vegetation is only rhododendron, azaleas and mountain laurels, it is highly unlikely that the bees are producing toxic honey. Honeybees like a varied diet and will not choose to gather from only one nectar and pollen source. It is also the wrong time of year to rob a hive. In other words, enjoy your honey and biscuits without fear :) 


  1. This is a really interesting post. We use small daily doses of honey to strengthen our immune systems and build immunities to allergens. I never thought about honey being toxic. I suppose there are differences between what is toxic to bees and humans!
    On another note, have you ever smelt rhododendron buds? It is heavenly, I don’t blame the bees for using them!

  2. Forager bees die before they reach the hive if the consume something like pesticides. I have also read that buckeye flowers will make toxic honey, but other sources say the bee will die if it takes buckeye nectar or pollen. Before the widespread availability of refined sugar, the main sweetener was honey. I have often wondered if people in the past had fewer allergies to pollen because they consumed more raw local honey than we do now.