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Wild honey is toxic, medics warn after two children die, 18 admitted

 Marimanti Level Four Hospital in Tharaka Nithi where one of two children died, and 18 were admitted, after consuming wild honey. [Phares Mutembei, Standard]

Health experts and professional beekeepers have warned against eating wild honey after two children in Tharaka Nithi died Thursday after consuming honey they had harvested from a tree.

According to Meru Teaching and Referral Hospital CEO, Dr Joseph Wahome, wild honey can be contaminated and consuming it is likely to be fatal.

"Wild honey can cause poisoning in humans and this can be due to contamination by rhododendron tree shrubs that contain the grayanotoxin chemical," said Dr Wahome.

A specialist in Internal Medicine, Dr Caroline Shango, said the honey from wild bees is often contaminated by toxins found in the environment.

"Wild honey can be dangerous as especially when contaminated by toxin-producing bacteria," said Dr Shango.

Former Meru County Government Health Executive, Dr William Muraah, said evidence exists that wild honey could be poisonous, and hence fatal to those who consume it.

"Evidence from the cases reported seems to suggest it is poisonous to humans. But what is important is to provide a sample of the honey to a laboratory for testing to establish the actual cause, and what compound is it to blame," said Dr Muraah.

"I suspect it might be related to the type of plants these bees choose to pick pollen, sugar sources and powders from, and which they then mix up with water and incubate to make a sweet sugar syrup," he added.

Dr Muraah further noted that the honey this type of bees release is not necessarily fit for human consumption, hence it is crucial for a comprehensive analysis of the product.

"Bees prepare honey not for us humans to raid, take and use as food, but for them to use as a food source or store for their young," he said.

"Just like other animals in nature, they may have developed a defense mechanism to protect their food source from others stealing it," Dr Muraah noted.

The doctor said wild bees could be excreting from an endocrine gland, a compound that is not harmful to them but toxic to humans if consumed in considerable amounts.

The medics were weighing on the most recent incident of wild-honey poisoning where two children died, and 18 other people hospitalised in the remote Rukani area of Tharaka Nithi county after consuming honey they had harvested from a tree.

The two, a boy aged 13 and a six-year-old girl were pupils at Rukani primary school and died after consuming honey produced by a variety of stingless insects which are smaller than honeybees.

Survivors were attended to at Marimanti Sub-county hospital. Nurse-in-charge Stephen Kamanja said they received the first case at midnight.

"We have 18 admitted. Unfortunately, one died while under treatment and we send our condolences to the family. All others are in stable condition," Kamanja said.

The children ate the honey that they had discovered in the hollow trunk of a tree that had been felled by a resident to make fencing sticks.

The tree, locally known as a mururuku, is also said to have medicinal leaves which are boiled before the water is drunk, while the honey is locally known as nchuura.

According to Paul Kajita, a large scale beekeeper who also makes traditional hives for sale, the wild honey is produced by a variety of insects which look like bees locally known as nchuura, mpiri and mpura.

"The insects look like bees but are not honeybees. They produce very sweet honey. Nchuura live on trees and produce honey which causes diarrhoea when consumed in large quantities. Even four spoons is dangerous," Kajita said.

He said locals consume it all seasons as it is readily available, especially in dry seasons when food is scarce.

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