Today, we’re travelling to Nepal to shadow the Gurung men as they hunt for honey at extreme heights in the Himalayan foothills through a series of photos by French Photographer Eric Valli. Despite his client roster that includes fashion powerhouses such as Hermès and Louis Vuitton, Valli likes to step out his fashion comfort zone now and again to bring us images from some of the most obscure corners of the world; lost in time.
This collection is called Honey Hunters and is one of Eric’s earliest prize-winning stories, awarded first prize at the World Press in 1987. Over 20 years later, the images are no less powerful and relevant in reminding us of a world unknown outside our own. They also document this dying art.
Honey hunting is carried out by men older than most people claiming retirement, who risk their lives to harvest the nests of indigenous honeybees. The art is passed on from fathers to sons, but as the decades go by, the original hunters pass away, and the new generations become less and less interested in adopting the profession due to the risks and limited income it offers, which make Valli’s photographs even more vital.
Seriously though, I can’t help wondering how on earth these men manage to collect honey off the side of a cliff. Most of the tools and equipment they use has evolved locally and is made of local materials like mountain bamboo and bamboo-based fibre materials.
At the base of the rock, a fire is made from wood and foliage, so that the smoke rise to disperse the bees upwards leaving. A ladder is suspended from the top of the cliff, tightly secured to trees at both upper and lower ends. The honey hunter is fastened to the ladder by a rope and descends the rope ladder while others at the top of the cliff make sure that he is held securely. Two to three persons are involved, responsible for checking, raising and lowering the rope to send items down from above and pull items up from the floor.
When the honey hunter gets near the nest to be harvested, he uses a long stick to balance the collecting basket exactly under the comb. The honey hunter uses a bamboo stick to pierce a hole in the brood comb area of the colony to be harvested, all the while fighting off angry territorial bees. Wooden or iron sickles fixed to the bamboo stick are used to cut the honeycombs. The basket is guided to catch the chunks of honey as they drop down. It can take two to three hours or more just to harvest one of the many colonies.
Honey hunting is also a spiritual pursuit for the Gurung men and their community, involving rituals. This is because honey hunters believe that there are two gods in the forest: a local god, who looks after local events and the real god of the cliffs who they worship by sacrificing, a goat, sheep or chicken.
In certain communities, women are also not usually allowed to watch their men honey-hunt in certain communities as it’s believed if they participate, the bees will be very aggressive, so they have to stay quite far from the cliff site or the trees. Nor can a honey hunter can join the hunting team if his wife is menstruating or over pregnant.
As well as the elderly Gurung men, for his project, Valli also followed a few honey hunting communities, including jungle nomads of the Himalayas who hunt in the foothills.
Sadly, though this ancient art form is at risk of dying out as the older generations pass on, and the Apis laboriosa bee population depletes, tourism takes over and the government opens honey-harvesting rights to contractors to meet growing demand from other markets. So if you’d like to support the Himalayan honey hunters, the best way to do this leaving them alone, and appreciating them through this blog post and Eric’s photos.