Why Winnie the Pooh Makes for a Bad Soldier?

Pictured above is a screenshot from “The Great Honey Pot Robbery,” a 1988 episode of The New Adventures of Winnie the Pooh. The picture shows the protagonist, Winnie the Pooh, sticking his head into a big pot of honey which, given the title of the episode, isn’t his. Pooh’s friend, Piglet, doesn’t seem to approve, but we really shouldn’t blame Pooh; honey is pretty great. Irresistible, in fact

And not just to cartoon bears. Honey seems to have had a similar effect on ancient Roman soldiers — and much to the delight of the opposing army.

From 73 to 63 BCE, the Roman Republic was at war with the Kingdom of Pontus. Pontus — ruled by a Persian King named  Mithridates VI — controlled the area around the Black Sea, and ultimately, the Romans would prevail and take control of the region. But that didn’t happen overnight. And in 67 BCE, the Persian army scored a victory in a sweet way. As the Romans advanced on the city of Trabzon in present-day Turkey, the Persians retreated, but they left something behind. As Vaughn Bryant, a professor of anthropology at Texas A&M University explained, “the Persians gathered pots full of local honey and left them for the Roman troops to find.”

The Romans, likely hungry from their efforts and certainly interested in something tasty, probably figured that the honey pots were simply left behind by fleeing villagers or the like. But the Persians knew something that the Romans did not. In that area, rhododendrons — a flowering plant — are very common, and some of the local species of rhododendrons contain a substance called grayanotoxins. People who eat the grayanotoxin-containing rhododendrons or anything made from them can get sick rather easily — side effects from ingesting grayanotoxins include nausea, vomiting, heart palpitations, hallucinations, and even loss of consciousness — but it’s rarely fatal to humans. But they can also get high. The hallucinogenic effect made grayanotoxins a recreational drug in the region two millennia ago.

No one wants to eat rhododendrons — they probably don’t taste great — but bees aren’t as discerning as people. The bees do their thing, pollinating flowers and buzzing around to the next, and then making honey from the nectar they collected. And that honey, being a byproduct of the rhododendrons, contains grayanotoxins. It’s common enough in the relevant area of modern-day Turkey that, for generations, the locals have called the “deli bal,” or “mad honey.” If you knew what it was, you knew that a little bit could be fun, but it was a bad idea to eat too much of it. 

The Persians knew that, of course, but their Roman pursuers did not. The honey the Persians left behind was a trap. And per Professor Bryant, the Romans “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.”

Mad honey is still cultivated today and, according to Big Think, it’s legal in both Turkey and Nepal to “produce, sell, and export” the gooey hallucinogen. Per Atlas Obscura, it can cost you up to $80 per pound, “it’s touted as relieving hypertension, providing a burst of energy, and being a sweet substitute for Viagra.” And, apparently, it’s useful to upend any attacking Romans.

Bonus fact: A common saying is that “you can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.” It’s a sage-like way to say that you’re better off being nice than being mean, and that’s probably good advice in that sense. But taken literally, it’s probably bad advice, particularly if you’re talking about fruit flies. As fruit ripens, its vinegar level increases and the acetic acid from the vinegar gives it an odor that fruit flies can pick up on. Per a 2015 study, fruit flies, sensing a meal is available, are attracted to the fruit. No other substance — honey, for example — had the same effect.

From the Archives: Winnie the Pooh-Poohed: Why the famous bear is banned from a Polish playground.