The honey hunters of Nepal

The honey hunters, also known as the Gurung tribe in central Nepal have been collecting honey from cliffs for centuries. Having no modern equipment or protection, they use the method of their ancestors. Ladders made from hand-woven ropes and tangos, long sharp bamboo poles with which the honey combs are extracted and dropped into baskets.

It’s a dangerous job as it requires climbing the sides of the cliff of up to 200 – 300ft above the base. The honeycombs are difficult to access as the bees make their nests around the south-west facing cliffs to avoid predators and for increased exposure to direct sunlight. The nests belong to Apis laboriosa, the world’s largest honeybee which can grow up to 3cm in length.

In December 2013, Andrew Newey, an award-winning UK-based travel photographer was able to document this ancient tradition of honey hunting. However, this is under risk due to the increase in tourism and a rising market for the honey obtained during the spring.

“I’d done plenty of research beforehand and I knew that tourism was having a detrimental impact on the region,” he said. “It was massively under treat and I thought I’d go over and document it before it just disappears like too many other traditions around the world.”

The honey is collected twice a year, during the autumn and spring. Before the hunt begins, the villagers offer sacrifice of a sheep, flowers, fruits and rice to appease the cliff gods. Those who die during the hunt are believed not to have prayed enough.

The honey hunt can be for as long as three days. At the base of the cliff, smoke is used to distract the bees and the hunters have become used to the bee stings as they climb the rope ladder and handle two tangos, one for removing the honey combs and the other has a basket to collect them.

“There’s a big team, and they see it as a sort of social event, a bit of catch,” Newey said. “I can’t imagine how sore the cutter’s muscles must be.”

The autumn honey which is kept by the villagers is used in tea and for other purposes. The spring honey, also known as red honey is shipped to countries such as Japan, China and Korea for their medicinal properties.

However, now it has increasingly become difficult for the villagers to maintain this tradition. Although the Gurung tribe used to own the cliffs, now the government wants to make it accessible for tourism and exploitation of the honey by contractors. This causes a disturbance not only to the tribe but also to the bee population.

Newey also noted that the children may not be interested in such a life-threatening job. As the old generation gradually pass away, there will be no one left to be a honey hunter.   

Garima Nabh is the founder of New Age Magazine.

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