In 1778 a curious incident was recorded by a renegade deserter from the Dutch East India Company in the vicinity of the Augrabies Falls which is believed to be the first record of poisonous honey in southern Africa. Since then other accounts of such poisonous honey have been recorded in certain regions within South Africa which are equally intriguing. Beekeepers in South Africa are fully aware of this poisonous honey and there is no danger of anyone dying because such honey is never placed on the shelves but is used by the beekeepers to feed their bees in the dearth season where the bees readily utilize it and are never poisoned themselves. Fortunately, poison honeys are often so bitter that consumption is limited.
Henrik Jacob Wikar
Henrik Jacob Wikar was a Swedish-Finn born in Gamlakarleby, Finland, in 1752 and arrived in the Cape of Good Hope in 1773 as a soldier of the Dutch East India Company. His gambling caused him to become indebted and apparently overcome by shame (or the threat of the debtor’s prison!) he deserted from the Company’s service in April 1775. Wikar kept a diary and was probably the first European to see the Augrabies Falls (Fig. 1a+b) and map the Orange River (!Garib or ‘Great River’), living amongst the indigenous people in the area until he was granted a full pardon by Governor Van Plettenberg and returned to Cape Town in July 1779. The area he covered was between Goodhouse (a corruption of the Hottentot word ‘Gudaos’ meaning ‘sheep ford’) and Koegas (‘stabbing hippopotamuses/Seekoeisteek’) between Upington and Prieska (Winquist, 1978; Nienaber and Raper, 1983).
Wikar recounted in his Journal that there were two types of trees which the Bushmen (San) used as poisons on their arrows which grew in the mountains along the Great River. The caterpillars that feed on the leaves of the one tree are collected, dried, crushed and rubbed onto the arrows with spit. The second tree he described had a strong-smelling sap that exuded once a branch is broken off and which made you blind should it get into your eyes. As he records “One day my brother companion Ouga brought me some honey which he said we might make beer of, but which he forbade me to eat. I did not quite understand why, and I did not take much heed, but I had hardly eaten a spoonful when my throat began to burn like fire, and not two minutes later my whole body became affected, and, by your leave, with apologies, I began to purge and got rid of worms looking like tape quite three fathom long [one fathom is 1.8 metres], and even longer, whereupon I fainted and the Hottentots poured water on me until I recovered consciousness; then I began vomiting so much that I had to lie down all that afternoon from weakness and fainting. I had been troubled with worms from childhood, so that sometimes I did not know which way to turn for the pain in my body, but since this occurrence, the Lord God be thanked, I have felt no pain. When it was all over, the Hottentots told me that the bees had sucked the flowers of the tree I had mentioned, and that was why the honey was so poisonous” (Maclennan, 2003). In 1818 Robert Moffat the missionary, recorded that at the Augrabies Falls his companions complained that their throats became hot after eating honey, drinking water only increasing the pain, and a local warned them not to eat the honey in that vale as it came from poisonous Euphorbia bushes (Juritz, 1925; Smith 1985).
Euphorbia or milk-wood species
The poisonous honey that Wikar ate presumably originated from the flowers of Euphorbia avasmontana which occur in pockets of concentration in the mountains along the Orange River and is known to beekeepers in that region. They flower in winter when few other plants are in flower and their yellow flowers (Fig.2) are attractive to many insects, but it is only the social honey bee which can maintain a brood temperature high enough to enable them to readily exploit this nectar source. Thus combs of honey at this time may consist entirely of nectar from this source. What is of interest is that the bees are able to utilize this honey in the normal way and it is not poisonous to them or their brood. That the Hottentots were to make mead from the poisonous honey perhaps indicates that in this form it is not toxic to humans. Obviously the Hottentots were fully aware of the properties of the honey and how to neutralize it and still use the honey. In Bushman mythology, their deity Gao!na turns himself into honey in order to poison a man who had displeased him – indicating such knowledge was prevalent amongst them (Woodhouse, 1985).
Great Fish River valley
The vegetative parts of Euphorbia species are known to be poisonous to both mammals and fish. Branches of Euphorbia shrubs thrown into pools of water have long been used by indigenous tribes to poison fish which are collected on the surface of the water and eaten. Euphorbia juice is also used as one of the ingredients used on poison arrows of the Bushmen and Hottentots in years past. The Euphorbia latex acts both as a cohesive and to produce irritation at the site of the arrow wound so as to favour absorption of the poison (Watt and Breyer-Brandwijk 1962). Baboons are known to feed on the stems of Euphorbia and then pass out – a phenomenon suggesting that they get a ‘high’ from doing so (Hood, 2005). This is especially true in the Great Fish River valley which abounds in a multitude of diverse Euphorbia species which produce white, sticky, latex if a stem is broken. Copious amounts of this latex is eaten by a number of mammals including kudu, eland, impala and baboons, but especially the black rhinoceros (Fig.3) which feeds regularly on the sweet noors, Euphorbia bothae (Hood, 2005).
All the succulent Euphorbia species are poisonous to a greater or lesser degree but 22 species are recorded as being eaten by stock or wild animals (Watt and Breyer-Brandwijk, 1962). Baboons were observed on a farm north of Windhoek in Namibia feeding on branches of Euphorbia virosa (Fig.4a+b) where they munched on them, despite the thorns, as if on corn-on-the-cob.
To have the skin torn by the thorn of, for example Euphorbia virosa, which occur throughout southern Namibia and into Namaqualand, results in a suppurating sore which takes weeks to heal. Having once collected seed capsules of E. virosa in which by so doing, some latex oozed onto my fingers, washing my hands in a running stream a bit later and then drinking water with cupped hand resulted in a strident and bitter taste in my mouth despite the miniscule amount ingested. Incidentally, not only are several mammal species able to utilize Euphorbia plants, but insects such as the ‘koringkriek’ (Hetrodes pupus) have been observed feeding on the spineless Euphorbia dregeana in Namaqualand without ill effect.
Baboon and rhinoceros consumption of Euphorbia bushes
The story of Henrik Wikar may be linked both to that of the baboons above passing out after eating stems of E. bothae and that of the rhinoceros bot fly Gyrostigma rhinocerontis which deposit their eggs into soft indentations in the hide mainly in front of and below the anterior horn and between the anterior and posterior horns (Barraclough, 2005). Upon hatching the maggots enter the host through the nostrils or mouth and eventually attach themselves to the lining of the stomach wall where they presumably feed on blood and tissue exudates. The fly is spectacular in appearance, black with an orange-red head, being 4 centimetres long with a wingspan of 7 centimetres. Several hundred of these large spiny maggots may occur within a rhinoceros. It was suggested that all three narratives indicate that the latex of the Euphorbia species is used medicinally in order to rid the body of parasites (Tribe, 2005). In most cases the animals feeding on the latex are older with presumably a higher incidence of internal parasites. In the Western Cape of South Africa baboons can be a problem in that they strip the bark of Pinus spp, causing the upper third of the tree to die. The youngsters emulate the dominant male which results in fairly large patches of trees stripped within each plantation. The strong resinous α-pinene odour of these exotic trees presumably induce the older, dominant males to use it medicinally because they chew it but don’t in fact use it as a food source.
Regions of spiny Euphorbia concentration.
Euphorbia species are characteristic of the Valley Thicket vegetation of the south eastern region of South Africa.
Beekeepers in the Sundays River Valley in the Eastern Cape in earlier days had great difficulty marketing their honey due to the harsh burning sensation caused by the honey produced from dense stands of euphorbias (Juritz, 1925). Euphorbia ingens, E. triangularis and E. ledienii in particular produce masses of yellow flowers in dense concentrations, but within this region are many other species that are scattered more widely. Eventually a solution to the problem was found by removing the supers of noors honey after the euphorbias had ceased flowering and placing them in storage to be replaced on the hives during seasonal dearth periods. Honeybees utilize noors honey without any ill effects. Where ‘noorsdoorn’ shrubs are more widely scattered in the general vegetation, the amount of noors in the honey is greatly diluted and mostly edible.
Symptoms of noors honey ingestion
Usually the strong burning sensation in the throat which is immediate and persists for some hours accompanied by nausea is enough to stop ingesting the honey. No fatal cases of ingesting noors honey could be found in the literature. However, not all noors honeys are equally potent because some may be diluted with nectar from other non-poisonous plants, or it appears that the potency of the poison also varies between Euphorbia species. Having ingested a teaspoon of noors honey, I can confirm the burning sensation which followed an immediate sugar taste but suffered no further effects. Juritz (1925) records that honey from another plant in the Euphorbia family – Spiroslachys johnstonii – which occurs in Swaziland causes a person to become temporarily mentally affected.
Active principles of poisonous honeys
The active principle in noors honey was found to be soluble in ether and can be removed from the honey in this way (Juritz, 1925). Plants containing pyrrolizidine alkaloids such as rhododendrons, oleander and azaleas (Ericaceae family) are sources of poisonous honey, the pyrrolizidine alkaloids on their own are not highly poisonous, but our livers metabolize them into substances that are toxic (Winston, 2002). Other sources of nectar that contain pyrrolizidine alkaloids include common borage, Echium, tansy ragwort, lavender and comfrey.
Early record of poisonous honeys
Poisonous honey is not confined to southern Africa and has been recorded from the earliest historical times. Woodhouse (1985) recounts that in The Golden Fleece by Robert Graves, that although Butes the Athenian was a connoisseur of honey he sampled the Colchis honey which local Thessalians had warned him was poisonous as it originated in the ‘high azalea forest’ but had a bitter but refreshing taste, reduced him to insensibility and nearly spelt disaster for the Argonauts. The fleeces of sheep were placed in streams leading into the Black Sea and the gold flecks adhering to the oils in the wool were recovered once the skin was removed and dried out. Xenophon’s troops were poisoned with honey in 401 B.C. in Georgia where the Greek soldiers robbed wild nests along the route and after eating the honey, lost their senses, vomited and couldn’t stand up (Krochmal, 1994). Those who consumed small amounts were intoxicated while those who ate more acted like mad men. Most effects wore off within 24 hours, but it took several days for them to recover completely. A similar scenario occurred with Pompey and his army in the Trebizand region of the Black Sea but they were unfortunate to be ambushed by the enemy before they had a chance to recover (Krochmal, 1994). The defenders had deliberately placed toxic honeycomb along the route of Pompey’s troops where three of his squadrons were annihilated while intoxicated. In both these cases Rhododendron ponticum was said to be the source of the poisonous honey and is to this day harvested from Apis dorsata nests in the Himalayas where it induces intoxication and hallucinations when consumed in small amounts. The Trabzon region of Turkey near the Black Sea is notorious for poisonings due to the toxin in the rhododendron family which has been identified as acetylandromedol, a type of grayanotoxin, while in others it is said to be mellitoxin (Krochmal, 1994). Acetylandromedol inhibits breathing and induces hypnosis.
Colchis honey found around the Black Sea region of Turkey was known to the ancient Greeks as meli chloron (‘golden honey’) and tavern keepers up north mixed it with ale to provide an extra kick.
Pollen is often ingested by humans as a protein source and health food. If originating from the same source as poisonous honey, this pollen can be just as poisonous, giving the same intoxication and hallucination effects. This was recounted by Jack Burton (2015) who was given a jar of pollen collected from pollen traps on hives from the rhododendron-, azalea- and mountain-laurel-covered hills near the coastal mountain town of Vernonia, Oregon, USA. He went through all the symptoms of honey poisoning, from exhilaration to absolutely miserable as the effects of the sub-lethal dose wore off. The poisonous pollen has no effect on the honeybee larvae.
Poisonous honeys from honeydew
Poisonous honey need not only originate from plants. In the Whangamata district on the Coromandel Peninsula in New Zealand toxic honey is produced when bees gather honeydew excreted by vine-hopper insects (Scolypopa spp.) that have fed on the native tutu bush (Coriaria arborea). Although the neurotoxin tutin has no ill effects on bees or vine hoppers, it is highly toxic to humans – as little as one teaspoon of toxic honey can affect the nervous system.
In ancient Greece cult priests fed meli chloron to a select group of young women, the mysterious Melissai, the Bee Oracles of Mt. Panassos who – divinely maddened – were inspired to speak truthfully of the future (Burton,2015). Bees were associated with Dionysus, God of Madness, and his Maenads to whom honey was sacred, that some honeys – properly handled and administered – may contain a key to the door between worlds (Burton, 2015). In A.D. 946, Russian foes of Olga of Kiev accepted several tons of fermented honey (mead) from her followers, and while they lay in a stupor, 5 000 of them were massacred. When the Hottentots told Henrik Wikar that they were to make mead from the poisonous honey, it was possibly not to neutralize the effects of the poison but perhaps to use it in one of their sacred trance dances? The effects of poisonous honey whatever its origin was always the same as it acts on the central nervous system causing tingling sensations and numbness, dizziness, psychedelic optical effects such as whirling lights and tunnel vision, giddiness and swooning and impaired speech in which words and syllables are uttered out of sequence (Burton, 1995). Symptoms may progress to vertigo, delirium, nausea, respiratory difficulty, very low pulse rate, muscle paralysis, unconsciousness and even death. It is highly conceivable that this poisonous noors honey was used in a similar fashion where the poisonous compounds were perhaps somewhat diluted and made less virulent when transformed into mead.