The ancient and sacred tradition of honey hunt supposedly, dating back to 11,000 BC can still be found in Gurung and Magar communities living in central Nepal. Many of us have heard of this old and dying tradition or seen a documentary on TV but never experienced it first-hand.
The villages in the region pay the men responsible for wild honey harvest and distribute the sweet nectar among them. These wild honey hunts/harvests are generally done only twice a year, one in summer/spring and the other in autumn.
The wild honey is taken from the world’s largest species of bee: Apis Laboriosa. To make those rare and super delicious honey, these bees feast on beautiful rhododendron blooms which cover all the hills in its spring colors of red, pink and white. Their hives are perched high on overhanging rock of mountain cliff sides, usually facing south for more exposure to the sun, as higher altitudes have colder weather, and to protect themselves from predators.
Plus, bees are known to get their bearing straight to get to the location of the hive and to scout for fields with blooming flowers in and around the valley, with their solar compass and internal clock. Their hive combs can sometimes, grow as large as around 5 feet in diameter.
The hunt/harvest is like a ceremony and a reason for celebration in the community. Before the harvesting can begin, there is a religious ritual performed where a sheep’s sacrifice is made to the mountain spirits along with offerings of rice, flowers, fruits and alcohol to appease their fury and for safety during the process of collecting the wild honey. The locally brewed alcohol is also served to the participants before starting the harvest.
The tradition of hunting wild honey using what looks like a primitive method, in a life threatening manner is an incredible experience. The honey hunters are experienced bunch and the harvesting is done only by men.
The tools they use during honey hunt are all hand-made which includes long and strong braided-bamboo ropes and long bamboo poles called ‘tango’ for slowly chiseling away the gigantic beehive and balancing the honey basket in air.
The group of men orchestrates the whole procedure skillfully, taking ropes and ladders atop of the cliff, laying them out and getting into positions.
They fire up smokes to get the bees out of the hives which in turn makes the swarm of bees extremely agitated and angry, leading them to attack in hundreds of thousands including bees from the nearby colonies and launch a full scale attack that lasts around 20 to 30 minutes. Only after the intensity of attack lessens, the hunter begins his difficult task of gathering the honey above 70 to 200 or in some cases 300 feet above ground.
The basket is positioned by the helpers on top of the cliff who also handle the re-positioning of ladder without seeing where the beehives are and only by following instructions shouted at them by another man on the ground overseeing the entire process from a vantage point to co-ordinate the whole charade.
The main hunter climbs up the ladder and cuts the wax comb to get to the honey. At the same time, he needs to balance a basket positioned under the hive with a pole to collect the honey with one hand, while the other hand is busy cutting away the honey. All this is done hanging in mid-air, and here we are who find it very difficult to walk on a flat surface holding a cup of tea in each hand!
Without any modern protection, bare feet, hands, face exposed and nothing to protect from an accidental fall besides tying himself to the ladder with a rope, the main hunter endures all the pain and maneuvers into position for the task at hand that is certainly not comfortable at all while hanging on the flexible rope ladder.
If there is a second attack of the bees, he will rather dearly hang on for his life, all curled up to protect himself for the painful stings than to come down, as it took a lot of effort to get in the right position. Same goes for the bees who had contributed so much time and effort in building those hives, have no option but to attack and defend their colony.
No modern gears means all the men get stung several times and end up with swollen eyes, lips, hands and feet. But they continue on with the work of harvesting the wild honey.
The honey filled basket is slowly and carefully lowered to the ground. Men under the cliff collecting the basket also have to be cautious, to not get hit by falling parts of the hive that don’t do much damage except, if they get a direct hit from any falling object from that height, it sure will induce an unbelievable amount of pain!
The men remove any bees attached to honey, filtered it through a cloth and put it into jars. The harvest lasts around 4 to 5 hours depending on the number of hives for harvest and co-ordination of the participants.
The honey hunters do not fully take out the hive, leaving a certain portion of it on the cliff, so that, the bees can repopulate the hives once more. Thus, sustaining and maintaining the balance for a healthy ecosystem.
These bees pollinate the high mountain floras and have been recorded even at the elevation of 13500 ft. So, they are a vital part of the ecosystem and needs to be protected from over-harvesting for their honey.
There is an increase in demand for these wild honeys in the world, especially in China, Japan and South Korea as these honeys are believed to have medicinal properties compared to honey from industrialized bee farms. This means that some villagers put money as priority rather than maintaining a healthy and balanced ecosystem. So, they collect the honeys numerous times without letting the bees get a chance to repopulate their dwindling numbers.
For this reason, these honey hunts should not be staged any time of the year, just for tourist or demand from other parts of the world for their sweet liquid gold. Plus, we can already see the adverse effects of climate change as their population is in steady decline. And the younger generations are also opting for other source of employments, not wanting to risk their lives climbing steep slopes through thick forests and working in such dangerous conditions where any error can be fatal. There are some cliffs which are named after men who have lost their lives during a honey hunt.
To see the honey hunters in live action without hampering their way of life and to preserve the long tradition is increasingly becoming difficult. But still, it’s great to watch these brave men tackle the issue on hand, with so much patience and perseverance. It’s just humbling to see them in work balancing their lives on ropes some 200 ft above ground and moving on to next one masterfully.
To witness the harvest in a responsible way without being a cause of any harm, direct or indirect to the ways of honey hunters from indigenous communities and the concerned wildlife of the region is an incredible experience. It doesn’t matter how many times, you may have watched the hunt, and it still is adventurous. The spectacular landscape of the Himalayas where all this goes down is amazing to look at and equally inspiring is the nature and its people.