Every year, for centuries in Nepal, members of the Gurung ethnic group have climbed down the sides of cliffs amid swarms of bees—putting their lives on the line—to collect wild honey. It is not just any honey, of not just any bee: Nepal's Apis dorsata laboriosa is the largest honeybee in the world, and in the Himalayan hills, its nectar boasts hallucinogenic properties. Those effects are documented from 401 BC—when Greek soldiers, traveling through modern day Turkey near the Black Sea, indulged in a similar honey and were debilitated with intoxication—to today. I'd heard some fascinating but vague stories about this custom, and I'd seen amazing photos and videos of past hunts. Intrigued by this ancient culture and the mysterious psychedelic effects of the honey, I joined the Gurung in their excursion last spring.
It took nearly two days for me to get from Katmandu to the village of Talo Chipla in the foothills of the Annapurna Himalayan mountain range, where villagers welcomed me with flower garlands and an orange Buddhist prayer scarf. The Gurung know the honey to be a powerful medicine that alleviates joint pains, and if taken in small doses, to also produce mild highs. In larger doses, ingesting the honey can send you on a toxic, cold-sweat trip of hallucinations, vomiting, and diarrhea that can last for more than 24 hours.
There's a lot of talk these days of the global depopulation of bees, and its implications for the environment have recently become a concern among international conservationists. Data on current populations of these Himalayan bees in Nepal are scarce, but contrary to the last government survey conducted, which showed a slight population decline, men and women in Talo Chipla told me that their bee populations are actually thriving, and so the biannual quests for their honey—once in late fall and once in late spring—continue. The Gurung's honey-hunt tradition plays a central role in the cultural identity of those in this region, and they welcomed me warmly when I arrived.
"At first, I am very scared going down the ladder," Tulsi Gurung, one of this year's hunters told me. "But when I see the hives, I get filled with power and become fearless."
The rhododendron is Nepal's national flower, and its pollen, picked up by these gigantic bees, contains the chemical grayanotoxin, which can infuse their honey with its drug-like qualities. In spring, the pink flowers blanket the hills, at altitudes too high for domesticated honeybees to fly, so to harvest honey that contains grayanotoxin, locals have one option: to scale the cliffs. There's no way to control the amount of rhododendron pollen consumed by the bees, so the potency of the high-inducing honey varies from season to season, if there are any effects at all. Still, come spring and fall, the harvests continue as they have for centuries. To the Gurung, hunting for honey seems to be as much about passing on tradition as it is about the honey itself.
Most of the villagers come from families that sustained life through agriculture for generations, but these days, many in Talo Chipla are employed to maintain a hydroelectric dam that was installed nearby. Each year, an increasing number of Nepalis leave rural villages to work abroad, and honey hunting has become a way for the villagers to maintain a connection with their ancestors.
"Only those who can control their fears and remain unflinching in the face of death can be a honey hunter," said Bais Bahadur Gurung (all of the villagers in the region go by the last name Gurung), the 65-year-old chief of the district. The role comes with great risk, but it's matched with equal amounts of respect and honor. Many of the senior hunters in Talo Chipla no longer collect honey today, but the villagers have faith in the upcoming generation. "Old men may have experience," Bais Bahadur explained, "but the young men have balls."
The night before the hunt, I laid in my tent thinking about the bees. Their hives are giant disks, the size of coffee tables, and hang from the cliffs in colonies of more than 50 hives. I drifted to sleep envisioning swarms of bees flying into my esophagus and making a hive in my hollowed-out chest cavity.
The next morning, I downed a cup of instant coffee and hiked an hour farther into the jungle with the villagers. We assembled in a small nylon camping tent for a breakfast of chicken and frog-leg soup for good luck. A bundle of dead frogs hung from the pole above our heads as we ate. About 30 hunters dressed in whatever protective gear they could find: Despite the heat, some wore winter coats to cover their forearms and torsos; some covered their heads by wrapping mosquito netting around plastic construction helmets and separated the mesh from their faces with beaks of bamboo.
From what I could tell, the ancient method for the collection is as makeshift as the hunter's outfits. I watched cautiously as the men anchored an enormous ladder constructed out of strands of bamboo and wooden rungs to the trunk of a tree on top of the cliff. Below, two men lit a massive fire of freshly cut wood and green leaves that created clouds of smoke that filled the hives and subdued the bees. In teams of two or three, the Gurung men descended the ladder. Others, using a rope, lowered a wooden basket lined with plastic, dangling them below the hives. Then, one by one, the hunters attempted to dislodge the hives from the face of the cliff, knocking chunks of honeycomb into the suspended basket beneath them. Nearly half of the hives whizzed past the baskets and exploded as they crashed onto the rocky crags below.
Sadly, in years past, some of the hunters have met the same fate. "Thirty years ago, when one of the hunters was on the rope, the fire below somehow made the ladder catch fire," recounted Yaocho Gurung, one of the village elders. "This man fell from the cliff, and his body smashed onto the rocks of the river."
This year's hunters returned safely, but the tragic stories linger. "At first, I am very scared going down the ladder," Tulsi Gurung, one of this year's hunters told me. "But when I see the hives, I get filled with power and become fearless."
They may be fearless, but the brave men don't go unscathed. When the Gurung emerged from the cliff, their hands were swollen with bee stings and looked like they'd been inflated with pumps. But the same wasn't true of their egos: The hunt is not a pissing contest, and the men were humble and nonchalant in their victory.
The Gurung use the honey they collect primarily as a sweetener or mild painkiller to dull the aches of agricultural work and alter their moods slightly. But recently, a large market for the nectar has opened up throughout northeastern Asia. There are buyers in China, Japan, South Korea, and North Korea (Nepal's Maoists have strong political ties to the Democratic People's Republic of Korea), where the honey is believed to promote erectile function.
Once back on top of the cliff, men sifted through the baskets of honeycomb with their bare hands. I watched as the hunters used sticks to mash their slurry of wax, honey, and half-dead bees through a bamboo filter and into a large metal pot. Wild Himalayan honey is darker and runs thinner than the honey produced by farmed bees, and as I swallowed the dose the hunters offered me, I could feel a tingling sensation in my throat. I ate two teaspoons, the amount recommended by the honey hunters, and after about 15 minutes, I started to feel a high similar to weed. I felt like my body was cooling down, starting from the back of my head and down through my torso. A deep, icy hot feeling settled in my stomach and lasted for several hours. The honey was delicious, and though a few of the hunters passed out from eating a bit too much, no one suffered from the projectile vomiting or explosive diarrhea I'd been warned about. Roughly 20 minutes later, still a little buzzed, we hiked back to the village with our spoils for a celebration.
When we arrived, the rest of the village was waiting, eager to hear about the hunt. They sacrificed a chicken, which we ate with dhal bhat (a rice and lentil soup), and performed traditional dances, fueled by endless cups of local firewater called raksi. We partied late into the night.
The next morning, I was groggy from the day's excitement and a night of raging. The hunters got to work dividing the honey among themselves and the rest of the community. Those who'd come from other villages to help asked for a little extra for their aging parents, to treat the aches and pains caused by arthritis. Each year more of the honey makes its way out of the village—nearly the entire stock of a recent hunt was sold to a Japanese man who brought the honey back to his home country.
As the season's collection came to an end, some villagers I spoke to said they fear that, like the declining populations of honeybees globally, the forces of modernization might threaten the Gurung honey hunters' traditions. Suresh Gurung, who at age 19 is the youngest hunter of the village, is not among them. "Those who are devoted will remain or return," he said. "Our culture will stay alive for many years to come."