Nepal’s Embattled ‘Mad Honey’ Bee

In the Himalayas, development, climate change, and the global market for an intoxicating honey are pushing one bee species to the brink.

Indigenous tribes of the Nepalese Himalayas have long practiced the tradition of hunting the honey of wild bees. Dangling from rope ladders on cliffs hundreds of feet off the ground, brave-hearted men remove honeycombs amid the swirl of smoke and giant, angry Himalayan bees, the largest on Earth. The honey the hunters collect can be laced with toxins from the flowers the bees pollinate and is consumed as medicine or exported as “mad honey,” due to its ability to induce intoxication and euphoria, at least in small doses. But this age-old ecological relationship, even as it is gaining in notoriety, could be under threat, as the climate changes and as development and extraction increase to unsustainable levels.

The Himalayan giant honeybee, Apis laboriosa, inhabits a vast region, approximately 2,500 kilometers along the southern edge of the Himalayan range, with over a third of its population concentrated in the Nepalese Himalayas. There, the bees, which can live at elevations up to 14,000 feet, bear the immense responsibility of pollinating high-altitude ecosystems, amid numerous threats to its habitat: deforestation, hunting, loss of nesting sites, parasites and pathogens, climate change, forest fires, pesticides, street lighting, competition with introduced European honeybees, and tourism.

​In the foothills of the Himalayas, an ecological relationship between villagers and honeybees is under increasing pressure. Photo by Biodiversity International/Flickr.

“Climate change and habitat loss are among the primary factors contributing to the decline in the population of Apis laboriosa,” says Surendra Raj Joshi, who studies resilient livelihoods at the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) and has been researching the Himalayan bee since 2004. “Climate-induced phenomena,” including early or delayed flowering, prolonged dry periods, and fluctuations in nectar secretion, “impose stress on honeybee colonies, affecting their strength and honey reserves.” Furthermore, he adds, “floods and landslides result in habitat degradation and the reduction of foraging areas for bees.”

Traditional honey-hunting practices, once community-centered events tied to forestry and land use, have shifted, he says. Now, the focus is more on meeting tourist and other market demands, which have risen in recent years due to the perceived therapeutic and recreational benefits of “mad honey,” which is produced by bees when they collect nectar from rhododendrons. This demand has led to “unsustainable practices, such as untimely hunting and harvesting all combs, contributing to population decline.”

The swift shift of bee cliff ownership from Indigenous groups to the government over the span of several years or decades has negatively impacted bee populations. Since approximately 1990, there has been a transition in cliff ownership, with the Forest Department and local government gaining more authority. This transition is gradually leading to these bodies assuming control over honeybee cliffs in various parts of Nepal, as reported by ICIMOD in 2004, with Joshi among the authors.

The government often assigns harvesting rights to contractors who do not prioritize sustainability, exacerbating the issue, Joshi says. “And even if the cliff ownership remains within the community, there has been a notable shift in traditional cultural practices. The younger generation no longer adheres to the lunar calendar and other rituals established through generations of observation. For instance, traditionally, they would leave some combs intact and harvest others based on their observations of honey storage patterns.”

Infrastructure projects are also putting a strain on the bees, including the construction of roads and hydro-dams. Mega hydropower projects, mandated by Nepal’s recent 10,000-megawatt power agreement with India, diminish biodiversity, destroying the bee’s habitat. “According to our research, Apis laboriosa prefers nesting near water bodies, as they rely on water and flourish in areas with adequate soil moisture for flower growth. The diversion of water for large dam construction will lead to significant alterations in vegetation patterns.”

Other researchers are also warning of the bees’ decline. Studies highlight a concerning decline in the bee population due to habitat loss, climate change, pesticide use, invasive species, and excessive honey harvesting practices, especially in Nepal. Speaking recently to Third Pole, an organization dedicated to healthy Himalayan watersheds, Ratna Thapa, a senior bee scientist at Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu, estimated a yearly decline of the population of 70 percent.

While research shows alarming trends for the honeybee, also at risk is a special ecological relationship between the bees and the people who live near them, who have established cultural and spiritual practices around them.

​The Himalayan honeybee builds its honeycombs on steep cliff faces, making harvesting extremely difficult. Researchers say the bees are struggling as their habitat degrades. Photo by Smkbhatt/Wikimedia Commons.

Apis laboriosa is the world’s largest honey bee. Photo by L. Shyamal/Wikipedia.

In November 2021, I was on an expedition to Bhujung, Nepal’s most famous village for wild honey hunting, in Lamjung district. I was there to document Indigenous knowledge of honey hunting as a fellow at the Avni Center for Sustainability (ACS), a non-governmental organization committed to sustainability.

In Bhujung, I met Pitraman Gurung, the proprietor of the guest house where I would spend the night. He graciously consented to represent his village in an interview. The following morning, Pitraman and I sat on stools in his front yard, gazing over the village below, the November air crisp and cold around us.

Bhujung is ensconced amidst rolling hills adorned with vibrant green terraced fields. The village is densely populated, with closely packed houses clinging to the hillsides. The surrounding hills, blanketed in thick vegetation, form a protective embrace around Bhujung. In the distance lie grander peaks, their slopes cloaked in lush greenery, creating a seamless transition from the village to the higher altitudes. Pitraman pointed out a forest below the tall peaks, where wild bees make their hives and where the hunters collect the honey.

Pitraman told me that his community embarks on wild honey-hunting expeditions at the forested cliffs twice a year: once during the months of Chaitra-Baisakh (April-May) and again in Mangsir (November-December).

Before each hunt, a religious ceremony is held, accompanied by sacred chants and prayers, offerings to the forest gods for their blessings and a safe, successful hunt. The ceremony is also an apology for acquiring their resources, Pitraman said. While the method of harvesting the cliffs can be explained to outsiders, the sacred chants remain secret, known only to the hunters. The harvested honey is then either distributed among the villagers or sold off to potential buyers. “I consume a spoonful of honey daily,” Pitraman told me. “It helps sustain me through the challenges of remote village life.”

The Gurung people traditionally practice animism, the belief that natural objects, phenomena, and animals possess souls or spirits. The Gurungs worship a variety of deities and spirits associated with mountains, rivers, forests, and other natural features. These deities are believed to play a vital role in protecting the community, ensuring bountiful harvests and maintaining balance in the natural world. This includes their relationship to the bees and their honey.

In years past, the community ceased honey hunting altogether due to the scarcity of bees. However, they had since resumed the practice, he said. The harvest was lower compared to the past, though, due to rampant logging activities and poaching.

The scarcity could have a ripple effect. Given, the vital role A. laboriosa plays in pollinating crops and fruits across its range, a decline in bee numbers could result in a reduction of vegetation abundance and variety. That, in turn, could have an economic impact: The villagers believe that the abundance of medicinal plants and trees directly influences the potency of honey, suggesting a gradual decline in honey quality alongside the deteriorating condition of the forest.

While global demand for “mad honey” is contributing the unsustainable harvesting practices, some think this demand could also be the key to helping the bees recover. That includes Chintan Kafle, managing director of Best Mad Honey.

Best Mad Honey is a Nepalese company that exports mad honey worldwide and promotes honey-hunting tourism in Nepal. Chintan told me that his company has incorporated honey hive tours into their offerings, allowing tourists to hike and observe honey hives nestled in cliffs.

He also said that they have been marketing other agricultural products such as alichai, ginger, and herbs cultivated in the region. “This diversification can add more value to the market and alleviate the reliance on honey harvesting as a community’s sole source of income,” he said. “We have provided flowering trees to these communities to promote the thriving of bee populations.”

The company acknowledges the growing popularity of Nepalese Mad honey, he said, “which may exert significant pressure on this particular variety of bee in the future.” But the company also wants to make sure it is acting sustainably. It is unclear how much these efforts will help, however, as there are many honey companies, many of which don’t seem to focus on sustainability.

Joshi, of the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development, says that currently there is no dedicated project for the conservation of A. laboriosa. But they must be preserved. “This goes beyond honey and other bee products,” he says. “It includes their vital role in pollinating wild flowering plants and various crops.”

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