Some honey can make you sick.
Some nectars can kill your bees.
Don’t worry. The “poisonous honey” is not likely to be on your grocery self, and it is very unlikely to be in the jars of stuff you took from your apiary this summer.
For us East Tennesseans, however, the poisonous nectar is not that far away. The nectar produced by rhododendron and mountain laurel, plants we’re pretty familiar with, are not good for the bees. Fortunately, these plants are found mostly in the mountains where the honeybee population is not high.
Miss Apis Mellifera, a beekeeping website run by Emma Sarah Tennant in Great Britain, has an excellent summary article all about poisonous nectars and honey. Tennant keeps bees in the London area along with Emily Scott, whose website is Adventures in Beeland.
Tennant says of poisonous honey, particularly having to do with rhododendrons:
An incident of poisoning reported in honeybee colonies on Colonsay Island off west-coast Scotland in 1995, referenced in Yates Beekeeping Study Notes (Modules 1, 2 & 3). “The bees had died out completely in 2–3 days after starting to collect nectar from Rhododendron blossoms (Rhododendron thomsonii) caused by the poisonandromedotoxin or acetylandromedol.” Ted Hooper writes on the case of Colonsay Island’s bees: “The West of Scotland College of Agriculture Study showed that the poisonandromedotoxin was involved”.
It sounds like rhododendrons are not a desirable source of forage for bees! However, to put the risk of honey poisoning from rhododendron, or any other toxic plant, into perspective, I asked John Robertson of The Poison Garden website: “Put simply, something has to go wrong for toxic honey to be produced and then it has to go wrong again for it to cause human poisoning.” OK, so what can go wrong?
“The first thing that has to go wrong is to have a lack of species diversity. Generally, bees visit so many different plants that they don’t get a concentration of any particular toxin. This can go wrong, as in the west of Scotland, where Rhododendrons are almost the only thing in flower early in the spring. But, nectar from Rhododendron is toxic enough to kill the bees so they tend not to return it to the hive. Experienced beekeepers know not to let their bees out at this time of year. I haven’t seen any reports of poisoning from honey made from Rhododendrons.” John writes more on The poison garden blog, entry forTuesday 27 September 2011. (quoted material)
There’s much more of this kind of information in the entire article, and for those interested in what happens to bees when they forage and what they produce, it’s worth a look.
Key words: bees, honeybees, poisonous nectar, poisonous honey, Emma Sarah Tenant, Emily Scott, Miss Apis Mellifera, Adventures in Beeland, rododendren, mountain laurel