Hidden weapon

"...honey bees have been used in warfare,dating as far back as Roman times.  There are for example, references to the Romans loading bee hives on catapults and firing them at their enemies. Other records can be found from the Middle Ages, where various armies threw bee hives at their attackers - especially off of castle walls, and on up through World War I and Vietnam.  A good reference for for this topic is "Insects in Warfare" by John Ambrose (published in Army 24(12):33-38.)

With regard to toxic honey, there is also a long history.  One of theearliest references comes from the writings of the Greek Xenophon (approx.  400 B.C.) who described the effects of soldiers eating a toxic honey.  The incident occurred in what is now Turkey.  The soldiers were returning to Greece from a campaign in the Persian Empire, encountered the hives and robbed them of their honey.  Xenophon indicated that the soldiers who consumed the honey lost thier senses, and were inflicted with "vomiting and purging".  A later reference indicates that the honey of that region was also used against soldiers of the Roman army under Pompey.  The Heptakometes left jars of the honey along the roadside as a "tribute" to some of the advancing army.  The soldiers who ate the honey lost their senses and were easily defeated by the Heptakometes.  The source of this toxic honey in the Middle East is probably Rhondodendron ponticum, although R. luteum could also be a source.  A good reference to the toxic honey of this region is Sutlupinar et al. 1993. Poisoning by toxic honey in Turkey, Arch. Toxicol. 67:148-150.There are several references to toxic honeys in the US.  The earliest record of which I am aware dates back to Philadelphia in 1790, when a child died from eating honey.

There are also references from the Civil War and from the 1940's and 1960's.  The most recent report is the one we found here in Virginia.  A beekeeper became violently ill after comsuming some honey from his hives and ended up spending 6 days in the local hospital.  We were contacted about the possibility of the honey causing the problems and subsequently analyzed the honey.  We found two grayanotoxins (primarily nerve toxins that lead to a prolongeddepolarization of the nerve)  in the honey in sufficient levels to cause very serious medical problems.  Based on the time of year, the area in which the honey was made, and the toxins, we believe the source was Kalmia latifolia (Mountain laurel).  This type of toxic honey is not common butseems to be reported once about every 20 or 30 years.There are a number of other plants that produce nectars with various toxins.  Some of these include Yellow jassamine, tansy ragwort, and Egyptian henbane. "

Rick Fell
Department of Entomology
Virginia Tech
Blacksburg,Virginia 24061