In Nepal, climate change threatens honey hunters' tradition – DW – 06/08/2024 – DW (English)

Dangling from a rock face near the community of Taap in the central Nepalese district of Lamjung, these men carefully cut through large honeycombs with a blade attached to a long pole. The honeycomb extract is also known as "mad honey," for its intoxicating qualities that can cause hallucinations. But the tradition of the honey hunters, as they are known, is in danger.
Studies show climate change is negatively affecting the populations of bees and flowers around the world. In Nepal, that effect is becoming clear: for generations, members of the Gurung community, a people of Tibetan descent, have been combing the steep Himalayan cliffs for honey. Their yield has decreased from year to year.
To protect themselves from the cliff honeybees, the men in the group wear a bakhu — a kind of scarf or poncho that the women in the village make from sheep’s wool. "There were about 35 hives last year. We barely have 15 now," one of the men told the Reuters news agency. Ten years ago, the men harvested around 600 kilograms (about 1,322 pounds) of honey; today, they can only manage 100 kilograms.
The job isn’t entirely without danger. Bamboo is cut into long, thin strips and made into ladders on which the honey hunters hang from dangerous heights. "It is fraught with danger of falling," said Aita Prasad Gurung, 40. The hunters are also aware of the damage they cause to the bees who lose their home, including their supplies and offspring.
Before every hunting trip, the hunters perform a ritual lasting almost an hour to ask for protection. They ask for divine blessing and apologize for having to take something from the bees. To make amends, they sacrifice a rooster, for example, and also give eggs or rice as gifts.
Smoke produced by burning leaves and small branches is intended to drive the bees away from their honeycomb (left). Even though the honey hunters are experienced and hardened, they still react sensitively to the stings of the bees.
Bashanta Gurung, 18, has been stung. He collapsed after several bee stings and was moved to safety. Although the honey hunters protect themselves with makeshift mesh hats or simply with coarse-meshed plastic bags over their heads, they don’t have full beekeeping equipment.
Climate change is causing problems for the bees. Erratic weather conditions have interrupted the flowering season throughout Nepal over the past 10 years. "Honeybees are very sensitive and susceptible to high and low temperatures, they die quite easily," said Sundar Tiwari, an entomology professor at Nepal’s Agriculture and Forestry University.