I’m sitting on a rocky cliff face high above the Tamakoshi River, which snakes through the deep valley below. The hills around us, behemoths pushed up by sheer tectonic might, rise with sharp crags, ridges and deep ravines that bear the scars of landslides long past and a few recent ones. Almost 100 metres above me, Devi Bahadur Nepali balances precariously on a nigalo ladder, his only safety harness being a rope that ties him to the paryang. Two, sometimes three, men at the base of the rock face hold the ladder taut to secure it. Another man, wearing a helmet, is responsible for feeding the fire with logs and green leaves and sending up plumes of smoke.
Devi Bahadur stretches out a doko, lined with a blue plastic sheet, towards the cliff face by balancing it on a bamboo pole. With his free hand, he pushes forth another pole, a curved branch tied to its tip that acts as an axe. In a supreme show of strength, Devi Bahadur begins to lop at a massive hive of the Himalayan giant honey bee (Apis laboriosa) dangling in midair. There’s an entire colony of these bees, almost 20 hives in total that has been disturbed by all this activity and while the smoke numbs some of them, thousands buzz around Devi Bahadur, seeking to displace this intruder—and others, like us, down below—with their mammoth stings.
Eventually, Devi Bahadur succeeds. A black wave of bees has receded to reveal a deep yellow hive. He cuts the lower comb that holds the eggs and the larvae, which falls to the ground below with a loud crash. Then comes the mead—he carefully cuts away at the inner comb, which is darker, and drops the comb into the doko. Once he’s satisfied, he swings the doko around, and shouts instructions to pull it down. With a small stump that acts as a pulley, the doko is lowered to the ground and the comb transferred. The bees are cleaned off, and the comb squeezed hard. Wild honey drips into a vessel. The bees hover all around us, desperate to protect their brood and their hives, dying in their attempts to sting us, who are thankfully wearing protective gear. The air is rich with their buzzing. Some munch on the comb with the larvae. The doko is sent up once more, and the process repeats itself.
I am in the upper reaches of Bigu rural municipality in Dolakha, witnessing perhaps one of the most death-defying acts of human endeavour I’ve ever seen. I’ve climbed up this cliff on all fours, while the honey hunters of Dolakha have raced up with all their gear. It’s an incredible feat, one that results in Devi Bahadur suffering from hundreds of stings despite the netting he wears. The next day, his hands are swollen, as are those of the others. I met a boy who was unfortunate enough to be stung by the bees, and his lips and eyelids had ballooned to twice their size. I am thankful I don’t have stings to worry about.
Honey hunting has come to be seen as one of the last symbols of a wild Himalaya, with multiple YouTube videos of travellers who seek “mad honey”—honey made out of rhododendron flowers in the spring that has hallucinogenic properties—to a visually rich documentary titled The Last Honey Hunter. The French filmmaker Eric Valli documented the practice among the Gurungs of Gorkha for a 1988 National Geographic issue. Both Valli’s feature and The Last Honey Hunter consider the spiritual side of honey hunting, contextualising the practice within the religious and animistic beliefs of the people.
In Dolakha, however, what I witnessed did not have any such spiritual connotations. Here, it seemed to be a purely economic exercise, although locals had long been harvesting honey for their personal purposes. Several told me it had only been about seven to eight years since locals had started selling the honey, and said the road built by the Upper Tamakoshi Hydropower Project had made it easier for them to access such markets.
Because this area falls within the Gaurishankar Conservation Area Project, permission to harvest the honey has to be acquired from the conservation forest sub-committees. This year, a permit to harvest honey from two rock cliffs cost Rs6,000 (in 2018-19, GCAP reported an annual revenue of Rs36,250 as collection fees for 1,477 kg of honey). Nima Sherpa, who runs a company called Cliff Mad Honey and buys the honey from locals, told me the entire harvest is divided into three portions. The hunter himself—Devi Bahadur in this instance—gets a third, the workers get a third, and the permit acquirer gets the remaining third. In some years, when the harvest may be low, the hunters may ask to be paid in cash.
Nima said he deals in about 3,000 litres of wild honey annually. He also collects honey from Dhorpatan and Rukum, and said there are plans to begin harvesting hives in the Jugal Himal valley. The harvest from the entire day amounted to around 35 litres, a far cry from the 40 litres Valli said a hunter harvested in an hour. But even in 1987, a local hunter told Valli that the bees had dwindled from his grandfather’s time. Out there, on the cliff too, I overheard the others talk about how the harvests had been erratic—whether it was overharvesting, commercial exploitation, deforestation, climate change, or the global decline in bee population, I couldn’t say. But I could hear the regret when a man said, “I wish there was a way to harvest the honey without killing so many bees.”
As I sat on that cliff face, I was conflicted by my choices. While rapid commercialisation of wild honey would have a negative impact on the bee population, to allow such an incredible practice to fade away would also not be right. A way out could perhaps be by declaring honey hunting an “intangible cultural heritage“, wherein incorporating the practice as a social ritual could assist in its preservation. Although Nepal ratified the 2003 UNESCO convention in 2010, no practices have been listed. On the other hand, China and India have listed 42 and 13 elements respectively under the convention.
High up on that cliff face, the precision and teamwork continued apace. With heart in mouth, I descended on all fours once again, leaving the hunters to their craft. The next day, while leaving Dolakha, I met the team next to a raging waterfall, ready to climb up a cliff that had more hives. This time, there were two ladders. Nima had decided he would climb as well. A former hunter then explained succinctly when I asked him if he ever felt afraid: “You have to climb without any fear.”
If only it were that easy.