for National Geographic News
Twice a year high in the Himalayan foothills of central Nepal teams of men gather around cliffs that are home to the world's largest honeybee, Apis laboriosa. As they have for generations, the men come to harvest the Himalayan cliff bee's honey.
The harvest ritual, which varies slightly from community to community, begins with a prayer and sacrifice of flowers, fruits, and rice. Then a fire is lit at the base of the cliff to smoke the bees from their honeycombs.
From above, a honey hunter descends the cliff harnessed to a ladder by ropes. As his mates secure the rope and ladder from the top and ferry tools up down as required, the honey hunter fights territorial bees as he cuts out chunks of honey from the comb.
For hundreds of years, the skills required to perform this treacherous task have been passed down through the generations. But now both the bees and traditional honey hunters are in short supply, according to scientists.
Farooq Ahmad, coordinator of the Himalayan Honeybees project for the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) in Katmandu, Nepal, said the shortages stem from the overzealous harvests of non-traditional honey hunters and downbeat conditions for honey production.
"Our studies show that during the last 20 years, the number of bee nests and bee cliffs substantially decreased," Ahmad said.
Well adapted to the harsh climate of Nepal Himalayas, the honeybee serves as the prime pollinator for the eco-region. The bee's decline is thought to have devastating consequences for the native, high-altitude plants that rely on the honeybee for their reproduction.
Stephen Buchmann, a bee expert and entomologist at the University of Arizona in Tucson, said loss of key pollinators such the Himalayan cliff bees is "really ripping away at the fabric of the ecosystem."
Honeybees, Buchmann says, pollinate about 25 percent of the wild plants within their 3 to 9 mile (5 to 14 kilometer) flight range. When the bees are lost, this vital ecosystem service is lost too, threatening the food base for the entire region.
With funding from the Austrian government, Ahmad and his ICIMOD colleagues are documenting the causes and consequences of the A. laboriosa decline and working with traditional honey hunters to preserve their sustainable harvesting techniques.
Since 2001, the bee populations have stabilized. Now Ahmad and his team hope that an increase in tourism to traditional honey hunting communities will provide incentive for a new generation of hunters to learn the ways of their elders.
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