Among those of us living in Western countries, Nepal has a reputation as a mystic place, a land on the border between the material world and the spiritual realm. It's got remote mountain peaks, an incredibly rich history, and a unique ecosystem of animals and plants that thrive in the harshest conditions.
And high up in those mountains, you'll find the largest honeybees in the world, hard at work turning the pollen of beautiful but deadly rhododendrons into a deep red honey that can cause hallucinations in those who consume it. This is the story of the people who risk their lives to harvest it.
A Dying Tradition
Apis dorsata laboriosa, the giant Himalayan honeybee, is perfectly acclimated to its high-altitude environment. So well acclimated, in fact, that you can't find it anywhere else in the world. At the top of towering cliffs in eastern Nepal, massive hives of these inch-long insects thrive on the pollen of colorful rhododendron trees that blossom every spring. They don't face a lot of natural predators up here, with their hives built directly into the cliff-faces. But for centuries, honey hunters of the Kulung people have braved these cliffs and the giant bees that guard them, armed only with hanging rope ladders, 25-foot bamboo poles, and their faith in Rangkemi, the guardian spirit of bees and monkeys.
One of these hunters — perhaps the last among the Kulung — is Mauli Dhan. In a June 2017 National Geographic profile, Mark Synnott accompanied Mauli on an expedition and discovered why the tradition was at such a great risk. Decades ago, the spirit of Rangkemi visited Mauli in a dream, calling him to the work that would define his life. But honey-hunting isn't just a spiritual calling for him. It's back-breaking work. "I'm tired, and I don't want to do it anymore," he says. "The only reason I still do is because I'm poor, and no one else will do it." It's not just a matter of finding a willing successor. Asdhan Kulung, Mauli's assistant, is more than qualified for the job, but he hasn't received the magic dream green light.
"Yeah, I'd like to have the dream," he says, "but I haven't, and I don't know why. Of course I could harvest the honey. But other people have tried without the dream, and bad things have happened to them. Their fathers have died, their children have died, their houses have fallen in, and their crops have failed. And I'm afraid of that." (Cue Stevie Wonder's "Superstition.")
Up on the cliff, Synnott and Renan Ozturk, his photographer, struggled to keep up with the rest of the expedition. Both are seasoned climbers, but their modern gear was ill-suited for this task. Of course, their bulky beekeeping suits didn't exactly help their climbing ability — and the giant bees soon perforated those suits in any case. Mauli, by contrast, carried out his task with only a fabric wrapped over his mouth, hanging untethered from a rope ladder and using the smoke from a smoldering bundle of grass to chase the bees away. You can watch for yourself in the video at the bottom of this page. It's an incredible task, but it's also easy to see why this 57-year-old man would be eager to retire.
A Honey Like No Other
The psychedelic effects of honey made from rhododendron flowers is actually well documented in history, going back as far as the fifth century BCE. Greek soldiers traveling through Turkey on their way back from Persia found themselves in a field alive with swarming bees and golden honey. But upon tasting that nectar, they "succumbed to a strange affliction... as though under a spell," according to their commander Xenophon, and had "lost their senses and were seized with vomiting and purging" according to Greek historians. You can still find that "mad honey" in Turkey's Black Sea region, but in Nepal, it's taken only in extreme moderation.
In a Vice report from 2016, David Caprara accompanied a different Nepalese honey-hunt, this one of the Gurung people (not to be confused with Mauli Dhan's Kulung). Vice being Vice, he obviously had to try the honey but kept to the recommended dose of two teaspoons, unlike those overzealous Greek soldiers. He described a very mellow high, similar to marijuana, and while some of the hunters passed out, none was afflicted with vomiting and purging. Among the people who actually live in the area, the honey is used as a pain-reliever for arthritis and other joint pain, but most is sold overseas for recreational use. But unless another hunter is guided up the mountain by Rangkemi, 2017 may be the last year that the honey will be touched by human hands.
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