In the tropical monsoon forests on the slopes of the Nilgiri mountains in southern India, local tribes risk more than a sting when they collect the unique wild honey found in this region, recently added to Slow Food’s Ark of Taste. The giant rock bee (Apis dorsata) forms its honeycombs on the high ledges of the mountains’ cliffs, requiring honey hunters to climb down long rope ladders made from tree bark which take them to combs hundreds of feet in the air. A loss of balance or a single misstep can be fatal.
Not surprisingly, the business of collecting honey, locally known as jenu, is a serious activity in these forests, undertaken by men who start learning from chief honey hunters during their adolescence. In the week leading up to the mission, the honey hunter prepares. He does not eat meat, he doesn’t sleep with his wife, he doesn't partake in village life. He stays alone. He works to achieve a state of calm and mental readiness for the task that awaits him.
When the day arrives, the honey hunter travels to the chosen location with a support team and lowers himself down the cliff, swinging on the ladder and pushing against the rocks with the agility of an acrobat. When he reaches the combs, he burns a bundle of leaves to calm the colony with the smoke while his assistants lower a basket from above. The basket is positioned below the comb and the hunter uses a long spear to cut off a chunk while singing to the bees, telling them that he is just taking a little bit of their honey for his children, and to please not go away.
You can tell an expert honey hunter from an amateur, they say, as he’ll descend the cliffs in broad daylight. Only the courageous and experienced will do this. A learner will go at night, avoiding the sight of the depth of the valley below him, the absence of safety gear and the buzzing mist of bees surrounding him like a cloud. An expert can also estimate how full a comb is on sight, based on its orientation, thickness and bulge.
On the trip back to the village, the team may encounter bears, leopards and elephants that inhabit the thick forest. The area is a UNESCO biosphere reserve, and one of the richest biodiversity hotspots in the world. On their return, they will play music on bamboo flutes and a small drum. The song the hunters play will be different depending on the success of the mission, and the rest of village will know how much honey the team was able to harvest, as they hear the approaching tune.
The Irula and Kurumba tribes have been practicing honey hunting in this way for generations. Rock paintings in the area depicting honey hunters are estimated to date back more than 2,000 years. Jenu was once a valuable commodity in the bartering system between tribes, and still now plays an important part in their diet, cuisine and medicine.
Today, little has changed with the practice, but as the outside world encroaches, the continuation of this ancient tradition is at risk. “The area is suffering deforestation and there has been a shift in the type of agriculture in the surrounding areas, from multicropping to monocrop land use, and an increase in tea cultivation, which means a loss of diversity and a higher use of pesticides and fertilizers that directly affects the bee population,” says Robert Leo from the Keystone Foundation, a local NGO has been working with the tribes for more than 15 years to ensure the preservation of the activity. “Plus many are wage-earning opportunities in other fields like textiles, government or factories.”
Since the Keystone Foundation began working with the tribes, the collaboration has focused on how to allow this tradition to continue in the context of a modern society. Through the project, local production centers have been set up where honey hunters drain, filter and package their honey. They now produce a marketable product sold at a fair price on the shelves in the Keystone Foundation’s network of ‘Green Shops’. The tribes are now also using the beeswax, previously discarded, to make candles and cosmetics. The Foundation has additionally introduced hive-keeping, so the hunters have a source of income in the honey-hunting off-season. “In the past few years, we have seen many instances of people coming back to forest honey gathering, particularly youth,” says Leo. “One of the reasons is that it is becoming economically viable.”
The project has also focused on an increase in quality. Previously the tribes were hand-squeezing the comb to extract the honey, which often meant that pollen, dirt or other substances could contaminate the product. Hunters have now begun to cut the comb and let the honey drain through a proper filter, reducing the risk of impurities.
The wild honey collection still practiced by these tribes is evocative of many of the practices carried out by indigenous peoples across the world—remarkable not only for the traditional knowledge and skills possessed by its practitioners, but for its evolution based on sustainability. Over the years, the hunters have come up with several systems to make the practice sustainable. When they cut the comb, they conserve the brood portion (the beehive’s young) to ensure future generations of bees. They may only take a few combs from a certain area of the cliff, or completely avoid entire cliffs as they are considered holy. “If there are ten colonies, they will leave two untouched,” even in times of hunger, explained Leo. “And if we consider that bees are responsible for pollinating the forest plants, conserving the bees means conserving the forest.”
While he is suspended in the air, the honey hunter’s bravery goes beyond the nerve he needs to confront the swarms and the risk of falling. He demonstrates courage of another sort: the ability to stop when his basket is half-full if the combs are poor that year, and return home playing the tune of a failed mission, knowing that by taking only what is sustainable, there will be honey again in the years ahead.
The Multi Floral Forest Honey was added to Slow Food’s Ark of Taste in 2011, a catalogue of high-quality at-risk products from around the world.
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Article first published in Slow magazine, issue 54.