Nepalese honey hunters are a small group of people who risk life and limb to collect one of the juiciest substances in the world. During arduous “honey hunts,” they climb local cliffs in search of popular mad honey, a substance with strong medical and psychoactive properties.
In this article, we’ll talk about honey hunters, the process of honey collection, and its environmental impact.
Who Are the Honey Hunters?
Honey hunters are the selected male members of the Nepalese Gurung tribe famous for collecting honey from Apis laboriosa or Himalayan giant honey bees. The thing that separates this substance from similar ones is that it causes psychoactive effects. So, due to these properties, Apis laboriosa honey was dubbed mad honey.
However, there’s much more to the Nepalese honey collection than the fact we get psychoactive honey as a result. The process is also world-renowned as being perhaps the most perilous food-gathering process. To access the honeycombs, the hunters have to climb down steep cliffs and provoke one of the largest bee species.
Because of that, it isn’t uncommon for honey gathering to end up in tragedy. The designated honey hunter (the person going down the ladder) is directly exposed to numerous bee stings. They also have to worry about slipping on the ladder or other mishaps that might occur while in the mountains.
Despite all the perils, honey hunting remains an important part of Gurung tradition, being practiced for hundreds of years. The process is deeply rooted in religion and represents a link between the ordinary human and the deities.
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Traditions of Honey Hunting in Nepal
Nepal honey hunting is a process that relies on mystic forces for results. To be precise, before local hunters honey farm, they pray to Gods of fire, earth, wind, and water, as well as the God of the Snake.
According to Nepal honey hunters, the gathering of this precious substance has as much to do with deities as it has with humans and bees. Only by respecting nature can the gatherers acquire this life-giving liquid. Furthermore, unsuccessful hunts are commonly perceived as a sign of God’s disfavor than a result of human error.
The Village Preparation
The honey is collected twice a year, in autumn and spring. Before collecting the vital juices, the current Durung shaman analyzes the omens. In most cases, these elders set gathering for Tuesdays, as historically the most-suitable day. On the other hand, they try to avoid dates during full moon festivals.
Honey hunters in Nepal are mostly adult males; women barely have any role in the honey collection. Before going out into the field, the tribe will select a designated honey hunter – A person who will climb down the rope ladder and take honeycombs.
Returning the Honey
Upon collecting the honey, the hunters will go back to the village and share it with the tribe.
In most cases, they return approximately 20 kilograms of honey per trip. Back in the day, the locals mainly used the substance for their own medicinal purposes, but nowadays, they are more likely to sell it on international markets.
The price of honey has shoot up in the last few years, making honey hunting a lucrative endeavor. There’s a major decrease in bee populations in many regions of the world, leading to lower production of this valuable substance. So, the locals are highly incentivized to double their efforts in an attempt to make fantastic money.
The Process of Nepal’s Honey Hunting
The reason why Nepalese mad honey is so expensive is that it takes a lot of courage and know-how to extract it. The bee hives are, for the most part, spread across perilous cliffs of Nepalese Lamjung and Kaski districts. Bee population prefers south-west cliff placement as it gives them direct exposure to the sunlight while protecting them from local predators.
Given the uneven surface, the locals can’t use standard ladders to reach the beehives. Instead, they have to get on top of the cliff and lower down rope ladders. These objects are made from bamboo, and the Gurung tribesmen call them Prang.
Understanding the inherent dangers of this process, we at Real Mad Honey, take measures to promote the safety of these courageous honey hunters. We provide the villages we buy honey from with strong ropes for safety harnesses, aiming to increase their security during precarious honey hunting.
The Hunting Ceremony
Besides the village ceremony, there is another one that precedes the hunt. Approximately 10 to 12 tribesmen will gather below the cliff in the early morning, performing a rite with flowers, rice, fruits, and incense and even sacrificing farm animals. By giving the Cliff God these offerings, honey hunters are praying for a successful collection.
After that, they will gather just about any plan they can find in the vicinity. They proceed by lighting a bonfire under these plants in an attempt to drive off the bees from their hives. While all of that is happening, the main honey hunter slowly starts descending down the cliff, trying to be as inconspicuous as possible.
Once the hunter is close enough to the nest, he will take out the long stick called Tango to pierce the nest. It’s vital that the comb remains attached to the stick and doesn’t move around a lot. Then, he will take another stick that allows him to place the honeycomb into a basket.
Similar to the ladder, the basket is attached to the top of the cliff, hanging off a long bamboo rope. Once the comb is safely in the basket, the other members of the cliff slowly lower it down to the team waiting below.
Risks of Honey Hunting
When climbing down a cliff, a honey hunter has to decent 60 to 90 meters below. Although hunters have protective clothing, it’s usually not enough against the biggest bee species in the world. During a single climb, a honey hunter might get stung 100 times, causing several wounding.
All in all, it’s really stressful being surrounded by all these bees that are now frantically flying around, disturbed by the smoke. Combined with the fact that the hunter is on a rickety ladder, it takes only a fraction of a second for an accident to occur.
The Environmental and Economic Impact of Honey Hunting
Unfortunately, as the world around us changes, so does honey hunting in Nepal. This centuries-old tradition is facing a few major challenges, including the continuously decreasing bee population. Furthermore, many young Gurung tribe members are no longer content with honey hunting and are looking for other opportunities in big cities.
Unfortunately, this isn’t the wild honey hunters of Nepal have to contend with.
Seeing the enormous potential profits that the mad honey brings, the country’s government decided to change the cliff ownership from local Gurung to non-community honey hunters. Nowadays, there are a lot of freelancers working the cliffs, many of which have limited experience with Himalayan giant honey bees.
Declining Bee Population
According to the experts, the Himalayan giant honey bee population is in a steep decline as of late. Every year, there are approximately 60 to 70 percent fewer of these beautiful insects. Besides undisprovable scientific data acquired from Lamjung and Kaski districts, researchers also use wild honey hunters’ stories to prove their point.
Not only is the number of bees reducing, but the same can be said for the number of colonies and cliffs occupied. Of course, there are some differences from area to area, with some of them experiencing bigger decreases in bee population.
Like with other species, the reason for this decline lies in the destruction of the habitat. The country’s government has invested enormous amounts of money to improve its road and dam infrastructure, causing massive changes to the environment. We also have to consider the use of pesticides and the loss of bee’s food sources.
The biggest change to Nepalese honey bee hunting was caused by the shift in honey prices.
As the global bee population decreases, honey prices are experiencing an enormous upward swing.
As previously mentioned, the price shifts also led to government involvement and the introduction of aggressive exploitation policies. The new, government-sourced honey hunters care about sustainable practices that would ensure honey collection without interfering with bee hives.
The Future of Honey Hunting in Nepal
While the situation might sound grim, there are a few positives. The Gurung tribe and the Nepalese government are becoming increasingly aware of the long-term problems that can arise due to these practices. So, they’re already looking for solutions that would protect not only the bees but also other local species.
The elders are suggesting a return to old traditions that would safeguard the insects. That way, they can ensure that their high-altitude crops are pollinated at all times while also preventing the disruption of the natural order.
In other words, local and global organizations are looking for ways to regulate honey hunting and limit the number of people who can gather the substance. Besides preventing unlawful gathering, this can also protect the Nepalese environment from people who might endanger it with their reckless activities.