In the misty foothills of the Himalayas, honey hunters risk their lives harvesting wild honey from vertical cliffs as their ancestors have done for centuries. This wild honey is known for its amber colour and slightly bitter taste. Also known as ‘mad honey’, it is highly prized for medicinal properties believed to relieve hypertension, provide a burst of energy, or work as a sweet substitute for Viagra. Consuming this honey can cause reactions ranging from a slowed heartbeat and hallucinations to temporary paralysis and unconsciousness. Risk not only lies in consuming this honey, but also in harvesting it.

The harvest takes place twice a year in tandem with spring and autumn festivals. The practice is tightly interwoven with Himalayan culture and beliefs. The honey hunters of Nepal must first perform a ceremony for the cliff gods to pray for safety and forgiveness from the bees. A ceremony commonly involves offerings of fruit, flowers, rice, and sheep.

The hunt begins as hand-spun rope ladders are flung down upon sheer cliffs from above, enabling barefoot hunters to reach the precariously perched hives of Apis Laboriosa, the world’s largest honey bee. Smoke is used to disorient thousands of irate bees that must be coaxed to leave their nests. The smoke helps, but there is no way for a hunter to escape the inevitability of being stung.

Blood, bites and blisters are synonymous with the hunt. Honey hunters muster the courage to invade the hives with a sharp bamboo implement called a ‘tango’ in one hand and the rope ladder in the other. Untethered and suspended at dizzying heights, the lives of these honey hunters depend on their ability to contend with swarming bees while cutting away blocks of precious honeycomb and lowering them to the ground in delicate woven baskets.

Once the honey is harvested, the hunters thank the bees and pray that the colony flourishes so that the practice may continue for generations to come. Much of the honey is destined to travel to Kathmandu, where it is sold to customers around the globe. But some of the bounty is divided and shared by those who have gone to unfathomable heights to harvest it.

With the demand for wild honey growing, harvesting honey has become a steady source of income for the honey hunters but recent reports show that this once-plentiful nectar is dwindling just as fast. Ratna Thapa, senior bee scientist at Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu, says, “Every year there is a 70% decline in the Himalayan cliff honey bee population.” The rapidly declining bee population poses an immediate threat to the honey hunters and their traditional way of life.

Stories of the honey hunters of Nepal and their plight have spread across the globe. In 2013, documentary travel photographer Andrew Newey spent two weeks living with the Gurung people of central Nepal in a remote region untouched by tourism to document a three-day autumn hunt. In 2018, National Geographic produced a short documentary film called The Last Honey Hunter in partnership with a local organization called the dZi Foundation. The film’s gravity-defying scenes take viewers on a hunt with Kulung culture in Nepal’s Hongu river valley. Powerful stories such as these offer a rare window and emotional connection to an ancient Himalayan tradition on the brink of extinction.

Photography by Eric Valli

Words by Trixie Pacis – Commissioned by hima jomo