Somehow, the bear got her paws on an excessive amount of deli bal, which has been cultivated by beekeepers in the Black Sea region and the Himalayas for centuries. The substance — also known as bitter honey for its pungent taste — is the result of bees feeding on the pollen of rhododendron flowers. The brightly colored plants carry a natural neurotoxin called grayanotoxin that, when consumed, can induce euphoria, hallucination and intoxication — as the bear quickly came to know.
A video shared by the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry showed the bear in its fully blitzed state. In the back of a pickup truck, she sat belly-up with her limbs sprawled out in what can be described as a vertical sploot. Her mouth was slightly open. Her eyes wide. For a couple of seconds, she wiggled around dazed and confused.
The clip quickly turned the cub into a local celebrity. After tapping citizens for name ideas, the government agency on Friday introduced her as “Balkiz” — which means “honey girl” or “honey daughter” in Turkish — along with a photo featuring the now-sober bear posing atop a branch with a half-eaten watermelon on the ground.
Though Balkiz is the latest to suffer the symptoms of a mad honey binge, she’s hardly the first to do so. Thousands of poisoning cases have been reported across the world throughout history.
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According to research by the late Texas A&M anthropology professor Vaughn Bryant, one of the earliest records of mad honey came from Xenophon of Athens, who was a student of the philosopher Socrates. The Greek historian wrote that a Greek army stumbled upon the substance in 401 B.C. as the troops made their way back from the Black Sea after a victory over the Persians.
“They decided to feast on local honey stolen from some nearby beehives. Hours later the troops began vomiting, had diarrhea, became disoriented and could no longer stand; by the next day the effects were gone and they continued on to Greece,” Bryant recounted in a 2014 news release.
Other troops weren’t nearly as lucky. Some 334 years later, Roman soldiers being led by Pompey the Great fell on a honeytrap planted by the Persian army, which “gathered pots full of local honey and left them for the Roman troops to find,” Bryant said. “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.”
Centuries later, Union troops encountered the hallucinogenic honey near the Appalachian Mountains during the Civil War era. Much like the Greeks and the Romans before them, the Americans got buzzed and sick, Bryant said.
However, mad honey is incredibly hard to come by, the Guardian reported. The rhododendrons that produce the necessary neurotoxins are found in few places and are most prolific in mountainous regions of the Black Sea and the foothills of the Himalayas. Harvesters have to go to great lengths to acquire the red-tinted goop — shimming up tall trees and cliffs and often fending off one of the largest species of honeybees in the world. The returns on those risks are big, though. A pound of mad honey can go for nearly $170, Bryant said. In Turkey, a pound of potent, high-quality deli bal can sell for up to 2,000 lira, or about $111, making it one of the most expensive honeys in the world, the Guardian noted.
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The price is also a reflection of the medicinal value some people attribute to the bitter-tasting honey. It’s often touted as a natural remedy for conditions including diabetes, hypertension, gastrointestinal disorders, arthritis and sore throats. Some even use it as an aphrodisiac or a treatment for erectile dysfunction, according to a 2018 report published in the scientific journal RSC Advances.
But too much of the honey can land people — and bears — in the hospital. Only the bees that produce mad honey are immune to the high. For all other animals, the substance can produce disorienting effects, though they typically last less than 24 hours.
On Friday, Balkiz was released back into the forests near the Balkans — a region whose name translates to the “land of honey and blood.”
“Godspeed to the beautiful girl who has won the hearts of us all,” Turkey’s minister of agriculture and forestry, Vahit Kirisci, wrote on Twitter. An accompanying video showed the brown cub frolicking down a grassy hill.
“May she eat everything in moderation, even honey,” Kirisci added.