Most Nepali throughout history have taken their way of life for granted. High in the Himalayan mountains, far from the rest of the world, a remote tribe has been performing a dangerous choreography with bees, perched high off of cliffsides, with eager rocks below. They’ve been hunting for their sacred Himalayan cliff honey since before recorded history, and the remoteness and ruggedness of the terrain have all but guaranteed that interlopers don’t make it very far.
But that’s all beginning to change.
New technologies are making it easier for outsiders to reach the precipitous heights that once protected the bees and their honey. The modern world is encroaching with increasing speed. In the past, the only worry that consumed a Nepali honey hunter’s mind was the challenging physical conditions they had to brave to reach the cliffside beehives that contained their prize. Today, they’re also concerned with honey poachers that care nothing for the hives, as well as overharvesting that threatens to disrupt the region’s delicate ecosystem.
Now more than ever, the Gurung tribe is turning to their traditional honey hunting methods to create sustainable honey markets that offer protection to the bees while raising awareness of their honey’s remarkable properties.
Ancient Traditions Meet the Modern World
Watching a Nepali honey hunter face off against the monstrously large beehives that dot Himalayan cliffside walls hundreds of feet in the air is not for the faint of heart. They perform their dance from hand-knotted ladders dangling precipitously from the cliff’s rim, operating at vertigo-inducing heights — one false move and they could be dashed on the rocks below.
Having soothed the bees with smoke, the hunters move quickly and with purpose, swinging in close, among undulating masses of bees, to strike strategic sections of honeycomb, fracturing them down into waiting blankets below. It’s a death-defying practice that requires the hunter to confront his fears and accept his mortality, and it has been central to their culture from time immemorial.
In recent decades, however, the number of honey hunters has diminished. Younger generations are moving away in increasing numbers, lured by the trappings of modernity, leaving a hole in Nepali society. Those that remain are redoubling their efforts to protect the old ways, and some of the more enterprising among them are connecting with their ancestors to give their culture a more prosperous future.
Newer Isn’t Always Better
Today, there are easier ways to reach these remote hives. There are safer methods for extracting their honey. But in mad honey, as in life, sustainability is in the balance. Nepal’s traditional methods have allowed people and the Himalayan bees to exist in harmony for millennia.
The honey hunters respect their quarry and take what the hive can afford to give. Hunts occur only twice a year, giving the bees time to rebuild and revitalize their supply. This is the way it has always been, and now that the market for Himalayan cliff honey is going global, traditional conservation methods are more relevant than they’ve ever been.
The hives must be protected so that their sacred honey can continue to flow. There is no greater calling for the local tribes that watch over the hives.
Their calling is our calling.