Mad Honey Part 3: A Perilous Tradition.
Legend has it that the Gurung (or Tamu) people were once a nomadic tribe that crossed Tibet before settling in Nepal in the 6th century AD. Today, more than half a million ethnic Gurungs inhabit the mountain valleys; most identify as either Buddhist or Hindu, but animistic beliefs and customs also remain rooted deep in their folklore. Twice a year, in autumn and again in spring, intrepid Gurung hunters will risk life and limb in a hazardous three-day tradition that requires nerves of steel, as well as essential skills handed down through the generations for hundreds of years.
Tuesday is considered the ideal day of the week to embark on such an auspicious exercise, while several dates on the calendar are excluded for superstitious reasons. Similarly, women must keep well clear, and any man whose wife is menstruating or is more than six months pregnant is automatically excluded. Prior to their early morning departure, the hunters (or kuiche) will placate the gods with offerings of flowers, grains and fruit, and by sacrificing sheep, goats or chickens.
The prize is ‘red honey’ (a form of ‘mad honey’) which incorporates hallucinogenic grayanotoxins derived from prolific seasonal rhododendron blooms. This elusive substance is manufactured by the Himalayan giant honey bee (Apis laboriosa), whose massive, single-comb, disc-shaped nests (sometimes referred to singularly as a ‘ray’ or ‘radius’) are strategically located under overhangs on treacherous, inaccessible cliffs – often up to 300 metres in height. These sites are commonly named to commemorate hunters who have perished while attempting to harvest the honey.
The Gurungs trek to the base of the cliffs, equipped only with ancient handmade bamboo ladders and hemp ropes. In some places it is customary to pour milk onto the cliff face prior to commencing the ascent. Then the hunters, clothed in traditional garments made from tough allo fibre (derived from the Himalayan nettle) begin the dizzying climb, swathed in smoke to calm the giant bees. A bamboo pole called a tango, measuring around seven metres in length and tipped with a wood or metal knife, is used to carve the rays of bees’ nests from the rock face. Another stick is used to manoeuvre a bamboo basket, which will catch the falling honeycomb. The basket is then lowered periodically to the ground, where the comb is wrung by hand to extract the honey.
The spoils of the hunt are typically divided amongst the village and the inhabitants may celebrate the success of the expedition with a cup of red honey tea! Fearful of incurring the wrath of the gods, some hunters refuse to sell their bounty and are careful not to destroy the bees’ nests, harvesting only part of the rays. Nothing is wasted: the wax is stored in wooden pots called donga and used to produce candles, and the bee brood is pressed to produce a thick juice, which when cooked resembles scrambled eggs (a local delicacy known as bakuti or bakuting). Alternatively, the larvae are simply grilled in a pan.
But red honey is renowned historically for its medicinal and psychoactive properties, and commands high prices internationally due to increasing popularity coupled with its scarcity and the difficulty of harvesting, Most will ultimately be bound for the export market. Such is the demand that harvesting rights have been sold to contractors; overharvesting is a concern and tourists are queueing up to participate in ‘honey hunt tours’. Commercialisation is endangering the traditional harvesting methods practised by the Gurung people for centuries, but there are also a variety of other threats to be confronted. The Himalayan giant honey bee is declining due to a combination of factors including disease, climate change, environmental deterioration and increased use of pesticides, while younger Gurungs are often attracted to city life and are reluctant to embrace precarious customary hunting techniques. Sadly, a unique and ancient way of life may soon vanish.