Himalaya Honey Hunters Cling to Cliffside Tradition

John Roach
for National Geographic News
April 14, 2004
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.

Threatened Tradition

According to Ahmad, a key threat to the cliff bees and traditional Nepalese honey hunters is growing recognition of the honey's value for use in Japanese, Chinese, and Korean traditional medicines.

"Nectar produced by some species of rhododendron in high mountain areas brings medicinal qualities to this honey," Ahmad said. "[It] has relaxing properties and is being used a sedative agent. It is also reported that some Korean local healers use it for treating [drug] addicts."

In the past few decades, demand for this A. laboriosa honey, which is produced during the spring when the rhododendrons bloom, has soared. A kilogram (2.2 pounds) fetches upwards of U.S. $15 on the open market.

To supply demand, Nepal's forestry department has transferred ownership of the cliffs from indigenous communities to the government and opened up honey harvesting rights to contractors on a first-come, first-served basis, Ahmad said.

As a result, traditional honey hunting techniques and rituals that ensured a sustainable harvest and maintained bee populations have given way to non-traditional techniques that denude cliffs of nests in an effort by contractors to maximize profits.

Dwindling forage also hinders A. laboriosa populations, as pristine forests are cleared and replanted with non-native commercial crops or fast-growing plantation trees that are of no use to the bees, Ahmad said.

Buchmann has closely studied A. laboriosa's closest relative, Apis dorsata. (Some scientists think the two bees are the same species, however.) Buchmann said deforestation and habitat fragmentation are likely the primary causes behind the A. laboriosa decline.

"It's the main thing hammering pollinators around the world," he said.

Further complicating matters is the fact the European honeybee (Apis mellifera) was introduced to the region in the 1990s to pollinate non-native crops and increase honey production. Native Himalayan cliff bees must now compete with European honeybees for nectar. When the European honeybee was introduced, so to was its associated parasite, Melissococcus pluton, to which the Himalayan cliff bee has little resistance, Ahmad said.

In response to these changes, according to ICIMOD, young people in traditional communities have shunned honey hunting as a profession, preferring better-paying work such as providing services to tourists as porters and guides.

Ahmad and his colleagues fear that if a new generation of traditional honey hunters is not found, the traditional system will fade away. In its place, they say, people with no interest in sustainable harvesting methods will exploit nests for short-term monetary gains.

Bee Tourism

In order to maintain viable bee populations, Ahmad and his colleagues worked with the honey hunters since 2001 to keep between 20 and 50 percent of the A. laboriosa nests intact at any given cliff site.

"Our initiative is working and honey hunters understand the importance of this bee species by using managed harvesting techniques," Ahmad said.

The next step for the ICIMOD researchers is to promote community-based ecotourism.

The group envisions tourists swarming to Nepal communities to view traditional honey hunters dangling from cliffs on roped ladders. In the process, tourist dollars will pour into the community. (Buchmann said he helped successfully implement a similar, smaller-scale program in Malaysia.)

Ahmad, the Himalayan Honeybees project coordinator, said: "Honey hunting and bee watch tourism is to support the honey hunting communities so that they understand the economic importance of [Himalayan cliff bees] and conserve them voluntarily."

Honey hunting tourism is not enough, Buchmann said, noting that wild honeybees need habitat protection. "It's the best possible thing that could be done."

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