Twice a year, members of a tribe located in Nepal risk their lives climbing the steep peaks of the Himalayan Mountains to harvest what’s called “mad honey.” The Gurung people migrated from Tibet in the sixth century to the central region of Nepal where they practice Tibetan Buddhism and Bön or shamanism.
One of the tribe’s most sacred and important rituals involves the dangerous task of collecting honey made by the Himalayan cliff bee, the world’s largest bee, measuring just over three centimeters long.
Mad honey, also known as “red honey,” is an essential commodity among the Gurung people, providing a range of interesting uses, including psychedelic, mind-altering effects, as well as medicinal benefits. It also serves an economic purpose as left over honey is often sold in village markets for a high price.
Interestingly, the honey’s toxicity varies according to the season. During the spring it’s believed to be much more potent as the oversized bees produce honey made from the nectar of the poisonous Rhododendron flowers.
Hallucinogenic honey creates feelings of pleasure and relaxation, but can also take your life
In small doses, red honey serves as a recreational drug through its powerful hallucinogenic properties, causing intense feelings of pleasure, relaxation, tingling sensations and dizziness. But if too much is consumed, the red honey can be fatal; however, its medical benefits are far and wide.
The village people use the exotic honey to treat a variety of ailments, including hypertension, diabetes and low libido. They also believe a spoonful a day boosts their immune systems.
A fascinating documentary directed by Raphael Treza captures the trek the Gurung people must make in order to harvest the precious honey that exists in enormous nests embedded in the overhanging rocks of the steep and isolated Himalayan cliffs. The huge nests sometimes grow up to five feet in diameter, containing roughly 60 kilograms of honey each.
In order to reach the hives, the Gurung people (also called the “honey hunters”) embark on a three-hour hike equipped with honey-harvesting tools, including a thick rope that’s used to make a ladder.
Also in tow are large woven baskets for carting the honey back home. The Gurung people bring a live chicken with them to be used as a ritualistic sacrifice that’s believed to summon the gods for protection, ensuring nothing goes awry.
Once they reach the honey-baring Himalayan cliffs, the Gurung people set up camp, building a fire that will create smoke to drive the bees out during harvesting, as well as to protect the hunters from being attacked.
As the Gurung people approach the bees, they begin to display a very specific behavior called “defense waves,” raising their wings and in turn creating a flashing wave around the hive, signaling a visual alarm to predators that they’re ready to strike.
Before the bees launch an attack, one of the tribe members lights a fire at the base of the cliff, eventually forcing the bees out with smoke. Yet they still act aggressively, trying to enter the clothes of the tribesmen. The camera crew is warned not to move, as even the slightest bit of motion provokes the bees.
Several honey hunters have died trying to harvest the lucrative honey
Amazingly, one of the veteran tribesmen who has carried out the dangerous task of harvesting the honey for more than 40 years, confidently climbs the flimsy looking ladder as it swings back and forth in the air. He’s known for his mystical relationship with the bees, as they seem to refrain from attacking him.
Reaching altitudes of 2500 meters, the steep Himalayan cliff side exudes a mysterious and rather magical energy, one that’s viewed as holy and gift-giving, yet looming and dangerous. Several men have died there, honored by their names carved into the rock.
Another tribesman lowers a woven basket from above, letting it hang next to the man on the rope ladder as he carefully slices chunks of the hive, dropping them into the basket. A well-coordinated team effort is crucial for their survival.
Miraculously, the veteran honey harvester completes his mission without being stung. Finally, the team relaxes at the base, carefully sampling the honey, including the cameraman who says he feels the effects immediately. The hunters recommend he sample just three teaspoons.
Left over honey wax is used to the feed the animals, while the rest is packed up and brought back to the village.
For more information on this ancient tradition, be sure to check out Treza’s video, posted above.