The daredevil honey hunters of Nepal make our jobs seem easy. Twice a year, deep in the jungles of central Nepal, members of the Gurung tribe harvest honey from the steep Himalayan cliffs. And while that might sound like a pretty sweet job (terrible pun intended) it’s more challenging than one might imagine, with the hunters’ knowledge of honey hunting having been passed down over generations. The honey itself comes from the hives of the Apis laboriosa, or the Himalayan honey bee—the world’s largest honey bee, with each individual bee measuring up to three centimetres in length. But that’s hardly the most unique thing about these creatures, or the tribe’s process.
A honey for ravers and spiritual seekers
Filmmaker Raphael Treza accompanied Nepalese Gurung tribesmen on one of these hunts and captured the extraction process in his documentary Hallucinogen Honey Hunters. One month every year, the giant bees come to gather nectar—which they turn into honey—from white rhododendrons, aconitum (also known as monkswood and wolfsbane), and entada rheedi, a long-stemmed woody vine (also known as the African dream herb or snuffbox sea bean) which is said to grow at altitudes of approximately 2,000 metres and above. In his film, Treza captures this centuries-old tradition of honey collection, while also noting the red, magic honey’s ‘mad’ properties. Synonymous with its hallucinogenic nature. Turns out the Himalayan honey bee is the only bee species that collects this intoxicating nectar.
The Gurung hunters take great risks to collect the honey, with no protective wear against bee stings and seemingly flimsy hunting gear. Originally from Tibet, the hunters—who came to this valley in the Middle Ages—are mostly subsistence farmers practising agro-pastoralism. They keep livestock and grow vegetables and rice on their small plots of land, and have little contact with the outside world. Even their village is a two-day walk from the nearest main road.
Not without ‘protection’
The basics of honey hunting have remained the same across regions in Nepal. A fire is lit on the ground and the smoke drives the bees out of their combs. Depending on the location of the hive and the height of the cliff, smaller bundles of dried leaves surrounding wet ones are burnt and steered along the cliff by rope. What changes from place to place is the socio-cultural and spiritual practice associated with the hunt. A puja is done in honour of the forest gods, asking for protection during the hunt, and another is done once the hunt is over. The ceremony also involves the sacrifice of an animal—usually a chicken, goat or sheep. The main honey hunter, who climbs the ladder and extracts the honeycombs is given the head of the sacrificed animal and has the privilege of eating the first portion of cooked meat. The job has great risks—several hunters have lost their lives, and out of respect, their names are etched on the cliff where the incidents occurred.
From beginning to end, the collection process is meticulous
Prior to the hunt, the trail to the cliff is cleared out or repaired—a task undertaken by the entire community. Equipment is checked—or remade if need be—and the rope ladder is soaked in water so it isn’t damaged by the flames. The main hunter climbs the ladder and gets into position. In the documentary, one observes a very peculiar behaviour (called defence waves) that the bees adopt when they sense a potential threat: they raise their wings in turn, creating a wave around the hive as an alarm signal. In the film, we see the hunter stay still for several minutes, which is said to calm the bees and reduce their aggression. Long bamboo ‘tangos’ are then used, one to cut the honeycomb and another attached to a basket for collection. A third of the hive is left to repopulate for the next season of honey gathering. When the bundles of leaves are lit, the bees see the smoke as a sign of fire and become distracted. As their survival instinct kicks in, the bigger threat—the fire—needs to be eliminated first and the hunters’ presence becomes secondary. The six main tasks of smoking out the bees, guiding the ladder, signalling, collecting the honey, gathering the honey at the base of the cliff, and worship, must all be properly carried out. A successful harvest requires perfect coordination.
How much honey is too much honey?
Once harvested, the honey is shared. All the community members who helped receive one portion, while the main honey hunter and those who pulled and guided the ladder get a double portion. All of those present at the hunt are permitted to eat as much honey as they can on the spot. The Gurung consume a teaspoon of the honey every morning, its medicinal properties are believed to help boost the immune system and it even has healing properties. The maximum dosage they suggest correlates to three teaspoons. The honey induces a feeling of inebriation—if too much is consumed adverse effects can be felt, as experienced by Deepak in the film. An overdose can cause both cardiac and respiratory problems. Uncontrolled, it can cause permanent damage, and even be fatal. The honey can also affect your vision and induce heavy hallucinations.
In ancient times, it is said the invading Greek and Roman armies raided this honey from a Turkish village surrounded by rhododendrons. When they consumed the honey however, they became drunk on its properties and some even ‘lost their minds’ and fell over the cliffs.
The threat of tourism versus tradition
The Gurung tribespeople of Nepal have been collecting honey from the Himalayan cliffs for centuries, but now this tradition is under threat from commercialisation and tourism. Agencies providing trekking tours pay hunters to stage hunts throughout the year, for tourists’ viewing pleasure, and some even allow tourists to participate. The constant extraction doesn’t give the bees enough time to repopulate and build hives. This disturbs and disrupts the local environment—and the bee population is already in decline. Due to increasing commercial interest, the government has started to seize the property from the locals and has begun giving out harvesting rights to private contractors.
It’s not just the numbers of bees that are declining, but also the number of next-generation hunters. The modernisation of the area has resulted in new, profitable job opportunities. The youth show little interest in learning these techniques and skills that have been a major part of the Nepalese cultural identity and ss capitalist ventures and mechanisation take over the region, this age-old Nepalese tradition may soon be lost. Yet another tale of commercial interests winning out over centuries of pure tradition. But if we must be thankful about anything, at least this one has been chronicled.
You can watch the honey hunters in action in Raphael Treza’s documentary below:
Words: Sara Hussain