9 Images of Traditional Honey Hunting in Nepal, a Declining Trade
What comes to mind when picturing the gathering of honey? Surely not ropes, ladders and a sheer cliff face in the Himalayas. But twice a year, men of the Himalayan Gurung tribe, drop harnessed ladders and ropes from the top of a cliff to a base below.
The hunter or kuiche climbs down the ladder and waits for acrid smoke to drive the bees from their nests. He uses one stick to cut the honeycomb from the cliff and another to guide it into a waiting basket, which is lowered to the ground. All while clinging to a rope ladder hanging over a cliff face.
“We work as a team… and each man has his own job to do. This is the way it has always been done,” one honey hunter says in a video posted to YouTube by My Secret Plant.
In December 2013 photographer Andrew Newey traveled to Nepal to join the Gurung on a honey hunt. He lived for two weeks with the Gurung in a remote hilltop village in central Nepal’s Kaski district, and joined the three-day autumn honey hunt.
Newey visited a site away from the Annapurna circuit, which is popular with tourists, and the hunters frequently asked how he found out about the time and location of the hunt. “Because these are responsible hunters they were concerned about their cliffs suffering from this unwanted tourist activity if the location was disclosed,” Newey told The Guardian.
This isn’t your average honey from any run of the mill bee either. This honey comes from the Himalayan honey bee, or Apis dorsal laborious, the world’s largest honey bee—they can grow up to 1.2 inches.
These bees build their hives only in the Himalayas at altitudes between 8,200 and 9,800 feet. A single nest can hold as much as 130 pounds of honey.
The Himalayan honey bees produce three different kinds of honey at different altitudes too. The most valuable is the red honey, which the bees produce at the higher altitudes. Spring honey can be collected at mid and lower altitudes and autumn honey can be collected at any altitude.
While The Guardian reports that the red honey can bring in as much $15 a kilo, the honey hunters are not the ones benefitting. And actually, the value of the honey has caused a shift in ownership of the cliffs—from indigenous communities to the government, which has given honey-harvesting rights to contractors.
“Though [the] price of intoxicating and regular Apis laboriosa honey is increasing day by day [the] honey hunters and the communities who own the proprietary rights of cliff bees are not benefiting from the increase in price of honey,” says an article prepared by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD). “This phenomenon is due to inaccessibility, marginality and lack of marketing skills among honey hunting communities.”
Another reason for the decline sited by ICIMOD includes a declining bee population due to changes in the landscape, landslides caused by road and tourist track construction, wilderness decline and an increase in disease due to irresponsible hunting.
There is also a reduction in the number of honey hunters. “Most of the honey hunters are aging and [the] new generation is least interested in adopting this profession due to the difficulties, risks, limited cash income and many other factors, the ICIMOD article says. “Communities living beside the cliffs were cemented together due to survival requirements, which [are] changing day by day because of in-out migration, job opportunities, increased income, better communication and infrastructure.”
The Guardian says that commercialization and the offer to tourists to join a honey hunt are a threat to the lifestyle as well. They say joining a staged honey hunt can cost anywhere from $250 to $1,500 and very little of that money goes back to the indigenous communities. The tourists also use climbing gear for safety, which damages the cliff face and nesting sites.
Get an idea of just how high up the cliff the honey hunters work:
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