To bee or not to bee

Himalayan giant honey bee hives are tucked under an overhang in the Ngadi River gorge in central Nepal. Honey hunters dangle on flimsy rope ladders to prise the honeycombs into buckets which are then lowered to the base of the cliff. The smoke is meant to confuse the bees. All photos: NABIN BARAL/THE THIRD POLE

This article was originally published on The Third Pole under the Creative Commons BY NC ND licence.

Ganga Bahadur Gurung is chanting prayers to the Water God, Earth God, Fire God, Wind God and Snake God for their blessings with the day’s risky honey hunt.

Members of his group are about to climb down the 50m Kamcho cliff on a swaying handmade rope ladder to prise honeycombs, as the world’s largest bees swarm all around.

“Wild honey bees make hives only on safe cliffs where the gods reside,” explains Gurung, as he waves incense sticks at the sky. The Himalayan giant honeybee (Apis laboriosa) can be up to 3cm long, build large hives on south-facing cliffs, and forage up to 4,100m in upland meadows.

Harvesting wild honey is an ancient tradition among Nepal’s Indigenous people who venture up twice a year in autumn and spring. The activity is deeply woven into their cultures.

Gurung is the leader of the 15-strong honey hunting group from Naiche, a village in Gandaki Province on the lap of Mt Himalchuli and near canyons created by the Ngadi River.

Ganga comes to the end of his puja, and the 48-year-old begs the bees for forgiveness for destroying their nests, and asks the gods to keep his companions safe.

With this, Ganga Gurung accompanies Bicche Man Gurung and Prabin Gurung, clambering down the Kamcho cliff to reach the nests, while the team below lights a smoky fire to drive the bees away.

Despite Gurung’s prayers, the hunt is unsuccessful. Most of the honeycombs lowered down in the bucket are dry. In the past villagers here used to harvest up to 15 litres of honey from big hives on this cliff. Today, there is just a trickle.

This is the third time in the past 10 years that the group has had such a poor collection. At the end of the hunt, Gurung thanks the bees and blesses the colony so that they may flourish and spread to create 100 new colonies by next year.

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Gurung says: “Nature is our god, we have to respect and harvest carefully as our ancestors did so that the bees can keep producing honey for centuries more.”

Ratna Thapa, a senior bee scientist at Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu, estimates that there is a 70% decline in the Himalayan cliff honey bee population every year.

Surendra Raj Joshi, a livelihoods specialist at the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) has a similar finding. He says, “The data from Kaski and Lamjung districts suggest that there is a decrease both in the number of colonies per cliff and the total number of cliffs nested by bees.”

Thapa and Joshi attribute this rapid decline to a range of factors: pesticide use, loss of habitat and food sources for bees, infrastructure development, and attacks by pests and predators.

Another important driver they identify is destructive and unsustainable honey hunting practices driven by international demand for its psychotropic properties.

Twenty years ago, the honey harvested by the villagers of Naiche sold for around Rs500 per litre. Today, it can fetch up to Rs2,500, but the price is much higher in Kathmandu and higher still in the international market.

Gurung says: “Two decades ago, the wax used to be more valuable than honey, so we used to harvest it after the bees had left the hive.”

At that time, the wax was used for candles and the honey was turned into local alcohol or was mixed with tobacco, and there was little demand for the actual honey itself.

Here in Lamjung, indigenous methods of wild honey collection were sustainable and were a part of the native culture. But with commercialisation, over-extraction is leading to a decline in bees and hives. Nevertheless, Arjun Gurung is chair of Marsyangdi Rural Municipality where Naiche is located, and refutes claims that wild bees are in decline: “We practice honey hunting in the traditional way, we do not want to disturb the local culture and practices. We have not seen a decline in cliff honeycombs.”

ICIMOD’s Surendra Raj Joshi recommends a range of measures to make wild honey collection more sustainable: harvesting only a portion of the comb, raising awareness of the importance of forests and nesting sites, giving honey hunters ownership and management responsibilities of cliffs to incentivise their protection, and generating eco-tourism income from  bee-watching.

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Dam the Bees

Over-harvesting is not the only threat to the Himalayan giant honeybee. Across the Nepal Himalaya, the use of dynamite to build highways and dams are disturbing the fragile mountain ecosystem.

There are five hydropower projects in operation or under construction along the Nyadi and its tributaries. Most cliff hives are located near rivers since the bees need water and minerals, but the dams have disturbed these water sources.

One of the main wild honeycomb sites near Naiche village is on a cliff face downstream of the 30MW Nyadi Khola hydropower project, work on which started in 2017.

Wild honey harvester Ganga Gurung recalls that there used to be 22 nests on cliffs near the project site. Fewer than half remain. After the project is completed, water from the river will be diverted through a tunnel to generate electricity.

“When the river has no more water, wild bees find the location unsuitable for making hives,” says Gurung.

Mad honey

Sanjay Kafle is chief executive and founder of Best Mad Honey, a Nepali company that exports 4 tonnes of cliff honey a year to countries around the world, and business is growing.

The rise in demand is driven by enthusiasm for its psychotropic effects. Known as 'mad honey', in small amounts it can cause lightheadedness and euphoria, and hallucination in larger doses.

It is believed to have medicinal properties, such as reducing cholesterol and helping against arthritis, but it can also be highly toxic, as an increasing number of people in Kathmandu are being hospitalised after taking it — especially in combination with alcohol.

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“People have realised the medicinal value of this honey, and scientists may have proven it, that is why the price of wild honey has gone up,” explains Ganga Gurung, a harvester in Lamjung.

A 250 gram bottle of Himalayan cliff bee ‘mad honey’ sells for up to $135 on Amazon.

But bee expert Ratna Thapa says there is no scientific evidence to prove that wild honey has medicinal value. He warns, “Instead, what I can say is that it has a chemical called grayanotoxin that affects our nervous system.”

Grayanotoxin is found in the nectar of the rhododendron flower, of which Himalayan giant honeybees are major pollinators. Wild honey bees forage on flowers up to 4,100m altitude where there are no other bees, and many Himalayan flowering plants depend on them for pollination.

“The value of the honey collected from these bees is nothing in comparison to the ecosystem services that they provide to us in high-altitude biodiversity conservation,” says Thapa. “If Himalayan cliff honey bees go, all species of the rhododendron will likely follow.”

Chasing honey hunters

The death-defying exploits of Nepal’s cliff honey collectors was first made internationally famous by Éric Valli’s 1988 book and video, Honey Hunters of Nepal, in which the French photographer and documentary film-maker depicted the villages in Lamjung.

In recent years, there have been many more international film-makers venturing to other parts of Nepal including Dolakha and Sankhuwasabha to hunt for honey hunters as the practice dwindles.

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