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Twice a year, members of a tribe located in Nepal risk their lives climbing the steep peaks of the Himalayan Mountains to harvest what’s called “mad honey.” The Gurung people migrated from Tibet in the sixth century to the central region of Nepal where they practice Tibetan Buddhism and Bön or shamanism.
One of the tribe’s most sacred and important rituals involves the dangerous task of collecting honey made by the Himalayan cliff bee, the world’s largest bee, measuring just over three centimeters long.
Mad honey, also known as “red honey,” is an essential commodity among the Gurung people, providing a range of interesting uses, including psychedelic, mind-altering effects, as well as medicinal benefits. It also serves an economic purpose as left over honey is often sold in village markets for a high price.
In small doses, red honey serves as a recreational drug through its powerful hallucinogenic properties, causing intense feelings of pleasure, relaxation, tingling sensations and dizziness. But if too much is consumed, the red honey can be fatal; however, its medical benefits are far and wide.
The village people use the exotic honey to treat a variety of ailments, including hypertension, diabetes and low libido. They also believe a spoonful a day boosts their immune systems.
Amazingly, one of the veteran tribesmen who has carried out the dangerous task of harvesting the honey for more than 40 years, confidently climbs the flimsy looking ladder as it swings back and forth in the air. He’s known for his mystical relationship with the bees, as they seem to refrain from attacking him.
Another tribesman lowers a woven basket from above, letting it hang next to the man on the rope ladder as he carefully slices chunks of the hive, dropping them into the basket. A well-coordinated team effort is crucial for their survival.
Miraculously, the veteran honey harvester completes his mission without being stung. Finally, the team relaxes at the base, carefully sampling the honey, including the cameraman who says he feels the effects immediately. The hunters recommend he sample just three teaspoons.
A fascinating documentary directed by Raphael Treza captures the trek the Gurung people must make in order to harvest the precious honey that exists in enormous nests embedded in the overhanging rocks of the steep and isolated Himalayan cliffs. The huge nests sometimes grow up to five feet in diameter, containing roughly 60 kilograms of honey each.
There have been famous episodes of inebriation of humans from consuming toxic honey throughout history. Xenophon, Aristotle, Strabo, Pliny the Elder, and Columella all document the results of eating this "maddening" honey. Honey from these plants poisoned Roman troops in the first century BC under Pompey the Great when they were attacking the Heptakometes in Turkey. The Roman soldiers became delirious and nauseous after eating the toxic honey, leading to an easy defeat. In the Caucasus region of Turkey, honey containing grayanotoxin known as deli bal is deliberately produced, and in the eighteenth century was exported to Europe to add to alcoholic drinks. Historically the toxin in the honey was derived from the pollen and nectar of Rhododendron luteum and Rhododendron ponticum, which are found around the Black Sea. According to Pliny and later Strabo, the locals used the honey against the armies of Xenophon in 401 BCE and later against Pompey in 69 BCE.
“The Persians gathered pots full of local honey and left them for the Roman troops to find,” says Bryant. “They ate the honey, became disoriented and couldn’t fight. The Persian army returned and killed over 1,000 Roman troops with few losses of their own.”