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Vanishing Hives: The Impact of Climate Change on Nepal’s Honey Hunting Tradition

For generations, the Gurung community in central Nepal has engaged in the ancient and perilous tradition of honey hunting. This practice, which involves scaling steep Himalayan cliffs to harvest honey from giant honey bees (Apis laboriosa), a wild bee species primarily native to the Hindu Kush Himalayan region in South Asia, is a source of income and a significant cultural ritual.


However, in recent years, this tradition has come under severe threat due to the impacts of climate change and environmental degradation. The community’s plight highlights the intricate connections between traditional practices, environmental health, and cultural survival.


Aita Prasad Gurung, 40, cuts honeycomb as he hangs onto a ladder made by villagers using bamboo and tree trunks. [Navesh Chitrakar/Reuters]
Honey hunting in Nepal. (Image: Navesh Chitrakar/Reuters)

The honey harvested by the Gurung people, often called "mad honey" for its intoxicating properties that can cause hallucinations when consumed in large quantities, is highly sought after for its reputed therapeutic benefits. This honey commands high prices on the global market, selling for hundreds of US dollars per 200 to 1000 grams.

 

Despite its high value, the availability of this honey has sharply declined. A decade ago, the community could harvest up to 600 kilograms annually; today, this amount has plummeted to around 100 kilograms.

 

Several factors contribute to the decline in honey production, with climate change being a primary driver. The Himalayas, where these bees thrive, are experiencing temperature increases higher than the global average, as reported by Reuters. According to United Nations data and independent research, temperatures in the region have risen more than the global average of 1.2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels​. This rise in temperature disrupts the delicate balance of the ecosystem, affecting the bees' ability to survive and produce honey.

 

Climate change manifests in various ways, leaving a lasting impact on the habitability of the environment that the bees require. Increased temperatures can cause heat stress, leading to decreased bee activity and higher mortality rates. Accompanied by erratic weather patterns, including unseasonal rains and prolonged dry spells, the adaptability of the bees is declining, further exacerbating the situation.


 

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These conditions can also disrupt the flowering cycles of plants that bees depend on for nectar, leading to food shortages for the bees and reducing honey production​. Suruchi Bhadwal from India's Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) notes that a temperature rise of even one degree can significantly affect bee growth, food availability, and pollination processes— patterns that are evident in Nepal​​.

 

As Nabin Baral highlights, the situation is dire. Ratna Thapa, a senior bee scientist at Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu, reports a staggering 70% annual decline in the population of Himalayan cliff honey bees in Nepal. The tradition of honey hunting is also contributing to this alarming decrease.


These bees are crucial for the pollination of high-altitude vegetation and face numerous threats. Thapa and other experts emphasize the vital role of these bees not only in honey production but also in preserving the biodiversity of the Himalayan ecosystem.

 

In addition to climate change, other environmental factors contribute to the decline in bee populations. Deforestation for agriculture and development projects, the diversion of water from natural streams for hydroelectric power, landslides, and the use of pesticides all play a role. This is crucial considering major water sources are merely 65-650 ft away from a number of bees’ nesting sites. These activities degrade the natural habitats of bees, limiting their foraging areas and further stressing their populations​.


A villager tends to a smoky fire to drive bees away from their hives. [Navesh Chitrakar/Reuters]
A villager tends to a smoky fire to drive bees away from their hives. [Navesh Chitrakar/Reuters]

The impact of these changes is profound on the Gurung community. The decline in honey production directly affects their income, which has historically been supplemented by this seasonal activity. The proceeds from honey sales are typically shared among the honey hunters, but with fewer hives and less honey, the financial benefits have dwindled.

 

Besides the loss of income from honey and beeswax, the local economy is also likely to lose out on income from ecotourism linked to the honey-hunting practice. Many community members have had to rely more heavily on mainstream agriculture, growing crops like rice, corn, millet, and wheat, to make ends meet​​.

 

Moreover, the cultural significance of honey hunting cannot be overstated. The practice is deeply embedded in the social and spiritual fabric of the Gurung community. Before each honey-hunting expedition, a ritual is performed to seek protection and forgiveness from the cliff gods for taking the bees' honey.


This ritual involves the sacrifice of a red rooster, with its feet and feathers offered to the gods. The community views this act as essential to maintaining harmony with nature and ensuring the safety of the hunters​​.


Using handmade bamboo ladders and ropes, the hunters climb up to 300-meter-high cliffs to reach the hives. They use smoke to drive the bees away and then carefully cut the honeycombs with long poles. This process is fraught with danger, as hunters risk falling from great heights and suffering from numerous bee stings. Despite protective measures like wearing nets over their faces, injuries are common.

 

The challenges faced by the Gurung honey hunters are emblematic of broader global issues concerning biodiversity and climate change. Bees (not just honey bees but wild bees as well) play a critical role in ecosystems as pollinators, and their decline can have cascading effects on plant reproduction and agricultural productivity. The loss of bee populations threatens not only natural ecosystems but also human food security.

 

Studies have shown that climate change-induced disruptions to pollination can lead to significant reductions in crop yields, affecting food supplies and prices worldwide​. Honey-hunters, who already relied on farming and agriculture during the off-season, are now showing increased dependency on their farms, indicating a growing shift away from the traditional art of honey gathering.

 

Similar practices can be found in various parts of South Asia with varying intricacies and cultural significance. The honey hunters of the Sundarbans, known locally as ’Moulis’, are part of a unique nomadic tradition centered in this vast mangrove forest straddling Bangladesh and India. This community's practices are shaped by the dense, biodiverse, and often dangerous environment of the Sundarbans, home to the Royal Bengal Tiger and the giant honeybee (Apis dorsata).


 

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The Moulis embark on their honey-hunting expeditions during the controlled hunting season from April to June. These expeditions involve navigating the intricate network of waterways and dense undergrowth in small, primitive boats. As the Gurungs do in Nepal before venturing into the forest, the Moulis too perform rituals and offer prayers to Bonbibi, the deity believed to protect them from the forest’s many perils, including tiger attacks. Such rituals highlight the deep intertwining of their cultural and spiritual lives with their dangerous occupation​​.

 

Honey collection in the Sundarbans is arduous and hazardous. The Moulis must climb trees using bamboo ladders and ropes, pacifying the bees with smoke before harvesting the honeycombs. Their work requires them to remain vigilant against wildlife, particularly the Bengal Tigers, which are known to swim out to their boats and attack even from the water. This results in an annual death toll among honey hunters, emphasizing the perilous nature of their work​.

 

The honey they collect, known for its unique flavor and medicinal properties, is derived mainly from three mangrove species: Khulshi, Goran, and Keora. Despite the high moisture content, which makes it prone to fermentation and thereby a reduced shelf life, the honey is in high demand locally and internationally.

 

As the world grapples with the diverse impacts of climate change, stories like that of the Gurung honey hunters serve as a stark reminder of the interconnectedness of nature, culture, and human livelihoods. Protecting traditional practices and the ecosystems that sustain them is not just about preserving the past; it is about securing a sustainable and equitable future for generations to come.



 

References


Baral, Nabin. “Nepal’s Honey Hunters Cling to Traditions as Bee Numbers Fall.” Dialogue Earth, 25 July 2022, dialogue.earth/en/food/nepal-honey-hunters-cling-to-traditions-as-bee-numbers-fall/. Accessed 11 June 2024.


Chitrakar, Navesh, and Yubaraj Sharma. “Nepal’s Honey Gatherers Say Fewer Hives Threaten Tradition.” Reuters, Reuters, www.reuters.com/investigates/special-report/climate-change-nepal-honey/. Accessed 11 June 2024.


Dehn, Claudia. “In Nepal, Climate Change Threatens Honey Hunters’ Tradition.” Dw.Com, DW, www.dw.com/en/in-nepal-climate-change-threatens-honey-hunters-tradition/g-69290374. Accessed 11 June 2024.


“Himalayan Giant Honey Bee, Cliff Honey Bee.” IFAS Extension, University of Florida, edis.ifas.ufl.edu/publication/IN1348. Accessed 12 June 2024. Accessed 11 June 2024.


“In the Sundarbans, Local Communities Harvest Honey and Protect Tigers.” World Wildlife Fund, World Wildlife Fund, www.worldwildlife.org/stories/in-the-sundarbans-local-communities-harvest-honey-and-protect-tigers. Accessed 12 June 2024.


“Photos: Nepal’s Honey Gatherers Say Fewer Hives Threaten Tradition.” Al Jazeera, Al Jazeera, 6 June 2024, www.aljazeera.com/gallery/2024/6/6/photos-climate-crisis-stings-nepals-honey-gatherers-threatens-tradition. Accessed 12 June 2024.


Thapa, Dikpal. “Photo Story: The Nepalese Honey Hunters Facing Some of the Largest Bees in the World.” Travel, 12 Mar. 2023, www.nationalgeographic.com/travel/article/photo-story-nepalese-honey-hunters-facing-largest-bees-world. Accessed 12 June 2024.


“The ‘brave Honey Collectors’ of Sunderbans.” Get Bengal, www.getbengal.com/details/the-brave-honey-collectors-of-sunderbans. Accessed 12 June 2024.


 

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