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‘Mad honey’: The rare hallucinogen from the mountains of Nepal
Of the world's 300 honey varieties, none is stranger and more dangerous than mad honey.
- Mad honey is produced by bees who feed on specific species of rhododendron plants, which grow in mountainous regions like those surrounding the Black Sea.
- People have used mad honey for centuries for recreational, medicinal, and military purposes. Low doses cause euphoria and lightheadedness, while high doses cause hallucinations and, in rare cases, death.
- Mad honey is still harvested and sold today, though it's illegal in some nations.
On the mountainsides of Nepal and Turkey, bees produce a strange and dangerous concoction: mad honey.
It's a rare variety of the natural fluid. Compared to the several hundred other types of honey produced around the world, mad honey is redder and slightly more bitter tasting, and it comes from the world's largest honey bee, Apis dorsata laboriosa.
Mad about honey
But what really distinguishes mad honey are its physiological effects. In lower doses, mad honey causes dizziness, lightheadedness, and euphoria. Higher doses can cause hallucinations, vomiting, loss of consciousness, seizures, and, in rare cases, death.
Here's one account of what it's like to take a moderate dose of mad honey, provided by a VICE producer who traveled to Nepal to join mad honey hunters on a harvesting expedition:
"I ate two teaspoons, the amount recommended by the honey hunters, and after about 15 minutes, I started to feel a high similar to weed," wrote David Caprara for VICE.
"I felt like my body was cooling down, starting from the back of my head and down through my torso. A deep, icy hot feeling settled in my stomach and lasted for several hours. The honey was delicious, and though a few of the hunters passed out from eating a bit too much, no one suffered from the projectile vomiting or explosive diarrhea I'd been warned about."
Here's another account from Will Brendza at The Rooster:
"Within 40ish minutes I could feel the honey creeping up on me. The back of my head started to tingle, like I was getting a scalp massage. Then, from within, I felt a warmth around my heart, in my chest and abdomen. Things slowed down a little, and my state of mind became tranquil. By the time we left the restaurant I was feeling good and strange."
"There are no visuals, though. The high is very much a bodily one and a mental one; a warm and relaxed sensation more like a sedative than your conventional psychedelic."
What is mad honey?
The psychoactive effects of mad honey stem not from bees but from what bees feed on in certain regions: a genus of flowering plants called rhododendrons. All species of these plants contain a group of neurotoxic compounds called grayanotoxins. When bees feed on the nectar and pollen of certain types of rhododendrons, the insects ingest grayanotoxins, which eventually make their way into the bees' honey, effectively making it "mad."
Rhododendron ferrugineumCredit albert kok
Bees are more likely to produce mad honey when and where rhododendrons are dominating. The reason has to do with scarcity: With fewer types of plants to feed on, the insects feed almost solely on rhododendrons, so they consume more grayanotoxins. The result is especially pure mad honey.
But accessing honeycombs that contain mad honey can be difficult. One reason is that rhododendrons grow best in higher altitudes, and bees often build their hives on cliffs near the plants, meaning harvesters have to climb mountainsides to harvest the honey.
However, harvesters bold enough to go for the honeycombs stand to profit. The Guardian reported that a kilogram of high-quality mad honey can sell for about $360 in shops around Turkey, while National Geographic noted that a pound of mad honey goes for about $60 on Asian black markets. In general, the value of mad honey is much higher than regular honey.
That's partly because many people believe mad honey has more medical value than regular honey. In the Black Sea region and beyond, people use it to treat conditions like hypertension, diabetes, arthritis, and
sore throat, though the research on the medical benefits of hallucinogenic honey from Nepal and Turkey is unclear.
In northeastern Asia, some buyers believe mad honey treats erectile dysfunction, which might explain why the majority of cases of mad honey poisonings involve middle-aged men, as noted in a 2018 report published in the journal RSC Advances.
How does mad honey affect the body?
Although the medicinal benefits of mad honey aren't clear, what's certain is that humans can be poisoned by consuming too much grayanotoxin-rich honey, which can cause dangerous decreases to blood pressure and heart rate.
Forensic toxicologist Justin Brower elaborated on his blog, Nature's Poisons:
"Grayanotoxins exert their toxicity by binding to sodium ion channels on cell membranes and preventing them from closing quickly, like aconitine. The result is a state of depolarization in which sodium ions are freely flowing into the cells, and calcium influx is on the rise."
This process can lead to a series of symptoms involving increased sweating, salivation, and nausea, Brower said, noting that symptoms typically disappear within 24 hours, as they did for a man in Seattle who suffered mad honey poisoning in 2011. While the exact amount of mad honey it takes to become poisoned depends on the individual and the quality of the honey, the 2018 RSC Advances report noted:
"Consumption of about 15-30 g mad honey leads to intoxication, and symptoms appear after half to 4 [hours]. The level of intoxication not only depends on the amount of mad honey consumed but also on the grayanotoxin concentration in the honey and the season of production. According to Ozhan et al., consumption of one teaspoon of mad honey may lead to poisoning."
Although Turkey records about a dozen cases of mad honey poisonings per year, a 2012 study published in Cardiovascular Toxicology noted that it's rare for people to die from the substance, though cases of animal deaths have been reported.
Mad honey throughout history
The strange effects of mad honey have captivated people near the Black Sea for millennia. One of the oldest accounts comes from 401 BCE, when Greek soldiers were marching through the Turkish town of Trabzon and came across a bounty of mad honey. The Athenian military leader and philosopher Xenophon wrote in his book Anabasis:
"The number of bee-hives was extraordinary, and all the soldiers that ate of the combs, lost their senses, vomited, and were affected with purging, and none of them were able to stand upright; such as had eaten only a little were like men greatly intoxicated, and such as had eaten much were like mad-men, and some like persons at the point of death."
"They lay upon the ground, in consequence, in great numbers, as if there had been a defeat; and there was general dejection. The next day no one of them was found dead; and they recovered their senses about the same hour that they had lost them on the preceding day; and on the third and fourth days they got up as if after having taken physic."
Centuries later, in 67 BCE, Roman soldiers weren't so lucky. As the soldiers pursued King Mithridates of Pontus and his Persian army, they stumbled across mad honey that the Persians had intentionally left behind, intending to use the substance as a bioweapon. Vaughn Bryant, a professor of anthropology at Texas A&M University, explained in a press release:
"The Persians gathered pots full of local honey and left them for the Roman troops to find. 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."
But mad honey was more often used for nonviolent purposes. People in the Black Sea region have long consumed small amounts of the substance (about a teaspoon's worth), in boiling milk or on its own, both for pleasure and as a folk medicine.
In the 18th century, merchants in the Black Sea region sold honey to the Europeans, who infused liquor with a bit of the substance to enjoy its milder effects.
Mad honey today
Today, beekeepers in Nepal and Turkey still harvest mad honey, though it represents a small fraction of the nations' total honey production. Both countries allow the production, sale, and exportation of mad honey, but the substance is illegal in other nations, like South Korea, which banned the substance in 2005.
While interested buyers in the U.S. can purchase mad honey from countries like Nepal and Turkey, it might be worth sticking with the regular stuff. After all, the handful of experiences posted on the website of the non-profit psychedelic research organization Erowid.org don't sound too enticing.
One user said they "wouldn't even recommend trying it." Another user suffered mad honey poisoning after taking too much, writing that the "symptoms can seem life threatening" and that they hope their report might help "some poor bastard out there not make the same mistake."
The father of all giant sea bugs was recently discovered off the coast of Java.
- A new species of isopod with a resemblance to a certain Sith lord was just discovered.
- It is the first known giant isopod from the Indian Ocean.
- The finding extends the list of giant isopods even further.
Humanity knows surprisingly little about the ocean depths. An often-repeated bit of evidence for this is the fact that humanity has done a better job mapping the surface of Mars than the bottom of the sea. The creatures we find lurking in the watery abyss often surprise even the most dedicated researchers with their unique features and bizarre behavior.
A recent expedition off the coast of Java discovered a new isopod species remarkable for its size and resemblance to Darth Vader.
The ocean depths are home to many creatures that some consider to be unnatural.
According to LiveScience, the Bathynomus genus is sometimes referred to as "Darth Vader of the Seas" because the crustaceans are shaped like the character's menacing helmet. Deemed Bathynomus raksasa ("raksasa" meaning "giant" in Indonesian), this cockroach-like creature can grow to over 30 cm (12 inches). It is one of several known species of giant ocean-going isopod. Like the other members of its order, it has compound eyes, seven body segments, two pairs of antennae, and four sets of jaws.
The incredible size of this species is likely a result of deep-sea gigantism. This is the tendency for creatures that inhabit deeper parts of the ocean to be much larger than closely related species that live in shallower waters. B. raksasa appears to make its home between 950 and 1,260 meters (3,117 and 4,134 ft) below sea level.
Perhaps fittingly for a creature so creepy looking, that is the lower sections of what is commonly called The Twilight Zone, named for the lack of light available at such depths.
It isn't the only giant isopod, far from it. Other species of ocean-going isopod can get up to 50 cm long (20 inches) and also look like they came out of a nightmare. These are the unusual ones, though. Most of the time, isopods stay at much more reasonable sizes.
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During an expedition, there are some animals which you find unexpectedly, while there are others that you hope to find. One of the animal that we hoped to find was a deep sea cockroach affectionately known as Darth Vader Isopod. The staff on our expedition team could not contain their excitement when they finally saw one, holding it triumphantly in the air! #SJADES2018
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What benefit does this find have for science? And is it as evil as it looks?
The discovery of a new species is always a cause for celebration in zoology. That this is the discovery of an animal that inhabits the deeps of the sea, one of the least explored areas humans can get to, is the icing on the cake.
Helen Wong of the National University of Singapore, who co-authored the species' description, explained the importance of the discovery:
"The identification of this new species is an indication of just how little we know about the oceans. There is certainly more for us to explore in terms of biodiversity in the deep sea of our region."
The animal's visual similarity to Darth Vader is a result of its compound eyes and the curious shape of its head. However, given the location of its discovery, the bottom of the remote seas, it may be associated with all manner of horrifically evil Elder Things and Great Old Ones.
If computers can beat us at chess, maybe they could beat us at math, too.
- Most everyone fears that they will be replaced by robots or AI someday.
- A field like mathematics, which is governed solely by rules that computers thrive on, seems to be ripe for a robot revolution.
- AI may not replace mathematicians but will instead help us ask better questions.
The following is an excerpt adapted from the book Shape. It is reprinted with permission of the author.
Will machines replace us? Since the origin of artificial intelligence (AI), people have worried that computers eventually (or even imminently!) will surpass the human cognitive capacity in every respect.
Artificial intelligence pioneer Oliver Selfridge, in a television interview from the early 1960s, said, "I am convinced that machines can and will think in our lifetime" — though with the proviso, "I don't think my daughter will ever marry a computer." (Apparently, there is no technical advance so abstract that people can't feel sexual anxiety about it.)
Let's make the relevant question more personal: will machines replace me? I'm a mathematician; my profession is often seen from the outside as a very complicated but ultimately purely mechanical game played with fixed rules, like checkers, chess, or Go. These are activities in which machines have already demonstrated superhuman ability.
Some people imagine a world where computers give us all the answers. I dream bigger. I want them to ask good questions.
But for me, math is different: it is a creative pursuit that calls on our intuition as much as our ability to compute. (To be fair, chess players probably feel the same way.) Henri Poincaré, the mathematician who re-envisioned the whole subject of geometry at the beginning of the 20th century, insisted it would be hopeless
"to attempt to replace the mathematician's free initiative by a mechanical process of any kind. In order to obtain a result having any real value, it is not enough to grind out calculations, or to have a machine for putting things in order: it is not order only, but unexpected order, that has a value. A machine can take hold of the bare fact, but the soul of the fact will always escape it."
But machines can make deep changes in mathematical practice without shouldering humans aside. Peter Scholze, winner of a 2018 Fields Medal (sometimes called the "Nobel Prize of math") is deeply involved in an ambitious program at the frontiers of algebra and geometry called "condensed mathematics" — and no, there is no chance that I'm going to try to explain what that is in this space.
Meet AI, your new research assistant
What I am going to tell you is the result of what Scholze called the "Liquid Tensor Experiment." A community called Lean, started by Leonardo de Moura of Microsoft Research and now open-source and worldwide, has the ambitious goal of developing a computer language with the expressive capacity to capture the entirety of contemporary mathematics. A proposed proof of a new theorem, formalized by translation into this language, could be checked for correctness automatically, rather than staking its reputation on fallible human referees.
Scholze asked last December whether the ideas of condensed mathematics could be formalized in this way. He also wanted to know whether it could express the ideas of a particularly knotty proof that was crucial to the project — a proof that he was pretty sure was right.
When I first heard about Lean, I thought it would probably work well for some easy problems and theorems. I underestimated it. So did Scholze. In a May 2021 blog post, he writes, "[T]he Experiment has verified the entire part of the argument that I was unsure about. I find it absolutely insane that interactive proof assistants are now at the level that within a very reasonable time span they can formally verify difficult original research."
And the contribution of the machine wasn't just to certify that Scholze was right to think his proof was sound; he reports that the work of putting the proof in a form that a machine could read improved his own human understanding of the argument!
The Liquid Tensor Experiment points to a future where machines, rather than replacing human mathematicians, become our indispensable partners. Whether or not they can take hold of the soul of the fact, they can extend our grasp as we reach for the soul.
Slicing up a knotty problem
That can take the form of "proof assistance," as it did for Scholze, or it can go deeper. In 2018, Lisa Piccirillo, then a PhD student at the University of Texas, solved a long-standing geometry problem about a shape called the Conway knot. She proved the knot was "non-slice" — this is a fact about what the knot looks like from the perspective of four-dimensional beings. (Did you get that? Probably not, but it doesn't matter.) The point is this was a famously difficult problem.
A few years before Piccirillo's breakthrough, a topologist named Mark Hughes at Brigham Young had tried to get a neural network to make good guesses about which knots were slice. He gave it a long list of knots where the answer was known, just as an image-processing neural net would be given a long list of pictures of cats and pictures of non-cats.
Hughes's neural net learned to assign a number to every knot; if the knot were slice, the number was supposed to be 0, while if the knot were non-slice, the net was supposed to return a whole number bigger than 0. In fact, the neural net predicted a value very close to 1 — that is, it predicted the knot was non-slice — for every one of the knots Hughes tested, except for one. That was the Conway knot.
For the Conway knot, Hughes's neural net returned a number very close to 1/2, its way of saying that it was deeply unsure whether to answer 0 or 1. This is fascinating! The neural net correctly identified the knot that posed a really hard and mathematically rich problem (in this case, reproducing an intuition that topologists already had).
Some people imagine a world where computers give us all the answers. I dream bigger. I want them to ask good questions.
Dr. Jordan Ellenberg is a professor of mathematics at the University of Wisconsin and a number theorist whose popular articles about mathematics have appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Wired, and Slate. His most recent book is Shape: The Hidden Geometry of Information, Biology, Strategy, Democracy, and Everything Else.
Laughing gas may be far more effective for some than antidepressants.
- Standard antidepressant medications don't work for many people who need them.
- With ketamine showing potential as an antidepressant, researchers investigate another anesthetic: nitrous oxide, commonly called "laughing gas."
- Researchers observe that just a light mixture of nitrous oxide for an hour alleviates depression symptoms for two weeks.
The usual antidepressants don't work for everyone. That's what makes a new study of the antidepressant properties of nitrous oxide so intriguing. It looks like just a single low dose of what your dentist may call "laughing gas" can help alleviate symptoms of depression for weeks afterward.
The study, from researchers at University of Chicago and Washington University-St. Louis, is published in the journal Science Translational Medicine.
Resistance to anti-depression medications
Nitrous oxide: two atoms of nitrogen, one of oxygenCredit: Big Think
According to the senior author of the study, Charles Conway, "A significant percentage — we think around 15 percent — of people who suffer from depression don't respond to standard antidepressant treatment."
"These 'treatment-resistant depression' patients," Conway says, "often suffer for years, even decades, with life-debilitating depression. We don't really know why standard treatments don't work for them, though we suspect that they may have different brain network disruptions than non-resistant depressed patients. Identifying novel treatments, such as nitrous oxide, that target alternative pathways is critical to treating these individuals."
"There is a huge unmet need," says lead author Peter Nagele. "There are millions of depressed patients who don't have good treatment options, especially those who are dealing with suicidality."
If ketamine can help, can nitrous oxide?
Credit: sudok1 / Adobe Stock
The researchers wondered if some of the anti-depression properties seen in ketamine might also apply to nitrous oxide. Nagele explains, "Like nitrous oxide, ketamine is an anesthetic, and there has been promising work using ketamine at a sub-anesthetic dose for treating depression."
The researchers conducted a one-hour session — they describe it as a "proof-of-principle" trial — in which 20 individuals with depression were administered an air mixture with 50 percent nitrous oxide. Twenty-four hours later, the researchers found a significant reduction in the participants' symptoms of depression versus a control group.
However, the individuals also suffered the unpleasant side effects that laughing gas often causes in dental patients: headache, nausea, and vomiting.
Smaller dose, longer effect
Credit: sudok1 / Adobe Stock
"We wondered if our past concentration of 50 percent had been too high," recalls Nagele. "Maybe by lowering the dose, we could find the 'Goldilocks spot' that would maximize clinical benefit and minimize negative side effects."
In a new trial, 20 people with depression were given a lighter nitrous oxide mix, just 25 percent, and the individuals tested reported a 75 percent reduction in side effects compared to the a control group given an air/oxygen placebo. This time, the researchers also tracked the effect of nitrous oxide on symptoms of depression for a far longer period, two weeks instead of just 24 hours.
"The reduction in side effects was unexpected and quite drastic," reports Nagele, "but even more excitingly, the effects after a single administration lasted for a whole two weeks. This has never been shown before. It's a very cool finding."
Nagele also notes that, despite its popular renown as laughing gas, even a light 25 percent mix of nitrous actually causes people to nod off. "They're not getting high or euphoric; they get sedated."
Delivering help to people with depression
Nagele cautions, "These have just been pilot studies. But we need acceptance by the larger medical community for this to become a treatment that's actually available to patients in the real world. Most psychiatrists are not familiar with nitrous oxide or how to administer it, so we'll have to show the community how to deliver this treatment safely and effectively. I think there will be a lot of interest in getting this into clinical practice."
After all, Nagele adds, "If we develop effective, rapid treatments that can really help someone navigate their suicidal thinking and come out on the other side — that's a very gratifying line of research."