Aconite and Possible Poisoning of Honey
Answered by: Conrad Richter
Question from: Melissa J. Nelson
Posted on: June 03, 2008

I am very pleased to have successfully germinated aconite seeds, but now I have some concerns before I plant the seedlings. I know that this plant is extremely toxic and I plan to keep it well away from all other herbs. But my husband raises bees and they would be very close and I understand that the plants are very attractive to bees. The question is this: would the toxin show up in the honey?

A very good question.

We have not heard from anyone growing aconite near a bee hive, so we cannot say for sure if it is a problem or not. But there is evidence that suggests that aconite may be a problem near bee hives. I don’t think that the evidence is conclusive because it’s not clear to me how the aconite got in the honey in the cases cited or if bees really do transfer enough of the active alkaloids to have an effect on humans. But I do think it is wise to avoid growing it where your husband’s bees can forage on the flowers.

An article published in the British Medical Journal in 1899 (http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0999/is_7222_319/ai_58358829) refers to poisoning of honey when bees forage on azalea, rhododendron, oleander and aconite. But in the specific cases cited it is not clear to me if the honey was intentionally or accidently mixed with aconite or whether the poisonous alkaloid was transferred to the honey by bees foraging on the flowers. But the article does go on to say that in Germany it was common knowledge that aconite and oleander can be a problem for beekeepers.

In 1887 New York Times published a short article (http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive-free/pdf?_r=1&res=9C06E7D81639E233A25752C2A9679C94669FD7CF&oref=slogin) about a suspected case of aconite poisoning of honey. Aconite was suspected by the attending physician who said that the symptoms of the family members suggested aconite poisoning. At the time the story was published it was not known for sure whether aconite was involved -- it was just a suspicion of the doctor based on the symptoms-- nor was it known how aconite might have gotten into the honey even if the poison was aconite.

There is a 1969 Japanese study (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/5392248) in which aconite pollen grains were found in honey. I saw only the title of the study, not the abstract or full text of the study so I can’t tell you more. But it at least confirms your observation that bees do at least visit aconite flowers.

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