Mad Honey Hunters

In the hidden foothills of the Nepalese Himalayas my heart is pounding as I watch a Gurung tribal elder balance precariously on a rope ladder.  At a height of almost 200 feet, the 58 year old becomes engulfed by thick smoke and thousands of giant hostile bees. Apis laboriosa are known as the largest bees in the world, with  magnificent nests built amongst dangerous cliffs and overhanging rocks. The distinct bright red honey, often referred to as “mad honey”, comes from the nectar of indigenous high altitude poisonous flowers.  Its intoxicating, hallucinogenic and strong medicinal properties are highly priced.

My cameras autofocus starts to struggle. The honey hunter jousts tentatively at a bee’s nest with a sharpened bamboo stick and masterly uses another to guide his hanging basket towards the great chunks of honeycomb, catching them skilfully as they fall. I was witnessing a performance not un-similar to that of a trapeze artist balancing in midst air, depending on the strength of only a rope and the tool of a stick to get him safely through to the finish! A distinct shout to another tribesman perched at the top of the cliff, signalled the basket of costly wild honey was full, and could now be lowered safely to the ground below. My camera zooms into the honey hunter as he descends – sunburnt, weathered, his bare feet blistered and covered in bee stings.

As if plunged into another set of National Geographic documentary, this is the wild and forgotten world of the last true honey hunters and I decided to photographically capture it, before disappearing forever.

Honey hunting in Nepal was known to me for some time. Only after learning of the numerous threats to a tradition dating as far back as 11,000 BC, I decided to visit the Gurung people to see and hear for myself the layers of problems they are facing.

For over 20 million years, bees and flowering plants have shared a long evolutionary relationship and depend on each other for survival. Plants provide bees with food and habitat, while the bees feeding on pollen and nectar provide the plants with pollination.

After living with the tribes in a remote hilltop village in central Nepal’s Kaski district for several weeks, I was  trusted and honoured to be invited to join them on their three day late summer honey hunt. Locations and times are kept hidden from the public to keep the bees protected. This hunt was six weeks later than in the past years, due to a changing climate and reduced bee population.  The Nepalese plant-bee relationship is highly specialised. These species have evolved together so closely with indigenous, high altitude plants of the Himalayan mountains that the plants depend on this single bee species in order to reproduce and vice versa. Nepalese Bees, Apis laboriosa, are most susceptible to climate induced extinction than the more generalist bee species, as the loss of one will inevitably lead to the loss of the other. The rapidly decreasing population of Nepalese bees has put local ecosystems in jeopardy, threatening the food base for the entire region.

We descend to the foot of the magnificent honey cliffs, the tribes light a fire and chant a ritual prayer whilst the smoke reaches the nests -we watch swarms of bees fill the air in magnificent waves of alert. These are genuine, responsible hunters concerned about their cliffs suffering from unwanted tourist activity if the location were disclosed. Nepal’s fast growing tourism industry has started attracting tourists wanting to taste traditional honey in the foothills of Himalayas. This influx of tourists trekking the world famous Annapurna circuit has also stimulated interest among trekking agencies in organising ‘staged’ honey hunting events in areas such as Ghandruk, Manang and Lamjung.  Charging astronomical lump sums of up to US$ 1500 for one honey-hunting event, very little of which is paid to the indigenous communities, Honey hunters are tempted by this short-term financial reward to harvest outside of the normal season with tourists using climbing gear to accompany them. It is these intruders that take risks, damaging the cliff face and precious nesting sites in the process . The natural habitat and life cycle of the honey bees are disturbed, with catastrophic impact on flora, fauna and eventually climate.

The Gurung tribal elder explains to me that skill, courage and respect are key elements of traditional honey hunters, the younger generation is less receptive and inclined to pursue other trade opportunities with less risk.

Yet demand remains, in particular across the border of Nepal: Chinese, Japanese  and Koreans have long been aware of the strong medicinal properties of Himalayan honey and  incorporate it into costly traditional medicines to treat infections and injuries.  Increased trade opportunities have resulted in a shift in “cliff ownership”, from the indigenous communities who would respect their environment and bee population to government authorities, today offering honey-harvesting rights to hard nosed business contractors. 

Fortunately, with funding from the Austrian government, the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) is addressing these problems on many fronts with environmental conservation and sustainable development through the Himalayan Honeybees project. Coordinators of the project aim to work with traditional honey hunters to preserve their sustainable harvesting techniques. They also aim to find an effective way of regulating harvests by only licensing those with proven knowledge and experience, limiting the number of nests harvested and implementing a system of fines and punishment. Combining community empowerment, conservation of indigenous bee species and streamlining the marketing of bee products, the aim is to help communities reap financial benefit from an indigenous resource whilst preserving a bee species that will ensure the pollination of crops and maintenance of plant biodiversity in the long term. 

I made some good friends and memories during my time with the Gurung tribes – curiosity will drive me to return to their beautiful mountains in hope to witness success in the protection of their giant bees, unique hunting rituals and majestic honey!

Written exclusively for Evoke by Andrew Newey, Wildlife Photographer,