Secured to large roots, a wooden ladder tied with coconut fibers is climbed down by men carrying a long bamboo stick (tango) and some light protection against bees provided by the uniform. These honey hunters use the tango to mangle the huge hives in front of them to obtain their honey. They are surrounded by furious bees, escaping the smoke produced by a fire they set to frighten bees away. Nothing would keep the hunters alive if they fell from the ladder.
The honey hunting skills in Nepal belong to the ethnic group of the Gurungs, people who have moved from Tibet and settled in the central Area of Nepal – Lamjung and Annapurna especially. They have been carried on the traditional honey hunting for generations, as honey is of central importance for them.
There are two main categories of wild honey in Nepal. The first is harvested in November, which taste and texture must be associated to the flowers of the Brassicaceae family plants at most, and it is considered as a food source of energy.
The second and most pivotal for the population is the Spring honey, characterized by its toxicity, drunkenness, and by an inebriating effect; these characteristics are to be associated to the foraging activity of the local bees of Apis dorsata and Apis cerana, whose receptors are attracted by the plants of the Rhododendron species of the Ericaceae family, whose reddish flowers cover the local forests during the season. Moreover, more plants such as white rhododendron, bikh (Aconitum spp.), pangra (Entada scandens), and niramasi, are involved in conferring toxicity to the honey. In a nutshell: summer means inebriation, winter is energy.
The real importance of the toxicity lies in what we would call inebriation. Although considering it as toxic, the Spring honey is a real medicine for the Gurungs. After honey is ingested, it gives nausea, diarrhea and even convulsions. It is a pump that cleans the body inside, that gives strength after causing heavy pain. What is medicine for these Gurungs is something that makes one feel as bad as possible, in order to provide them with more strength and resistance later: it may serve the need to be stronger in the colder and wet seasons to come.
Honey hunting has to counter a long list of anthropogenic threats, both regarding bee population and the Gurungs. When it comes to the Gurungs, one may reflect on the intensive migration happening worldwide, where especially young people move from their isolated villages into bigger centres. But honey hunting have become less important than once, so only three or four new hunters are needed through each generation, and they are easy to be found within the village. Nonetheless, honey hunting has become poorer and poorer, and on its way to extiction.
Climate change is affecting local bee population, forcing bees to migrate elsewhere, weakening them and depleting their total number. Moreover, an increased amount of tourists is putting their ecosystem at risk.
The actions related to hunting honey are depleting bee population as well. Once the hive is mangled, there is no way to save the larvae or to leave them attached to the cliff. The hunters are aware of this trend, but they also admit they have no other ways to obtain honey. Before each hunting, they pray to the forest god not to be injured, and apologize to the bees for their imminent action.
Honey is a sweetener sometimes used into bread or, as found by Strickland (1982), heated and mixed with popped rice and barley, and left into cold coffee for children. Other uses such as feeding cattle and to prepare a liqueur.
Image: © Giovanni MarabeseBack to the archive >