Indigenous Honeybees and Honey Hunters of Himalayas: A case of Apis laboriosa in Kaski District of Nepal

Introduction

Nepal is very rich in honeybee diversity. There are at least five different honeybee species in the country. A large quantity of honey and beeswax is being produced from indigenous honeybees (mainly Apis dorsata and Apis laboriosa). These bee species play a vital role in pollinating mountain crops and wild flora. However, there is a significant lack of information about the population status of indigenous honeybees, and their relationship and role in regulating honey-hunting traditions, livelihood issues, and biodiversity conservation.

ICIMOD has carried out field studies in six mountain districts of Nepal. On the basis of this information, Kaski district was selected as a site for an in-depth study of Apis laboriosa nesting sites, their habitat, and their relationship with the sociocultural and economic complex of local communities. The study also focused on the spiritual and social values of honey hunting and its role in livelihoods. The status of wild honeybees and their nesting sites was surveyed by making field visits and using questionnaires. We recorded the locations of bee cliffs using global positioning system (GPS) equipment. An innovative approach "Appreciative Participatory Planning and Action" was used to collect information on honey hunting communities - their status, the level of dependency on honey hunting and the challenges they face in a changed socioeconomic and ecological scenario...

The Himalayan Cliff Bee Apis laboriosa and the Honey Hunters of Kaski: Indigenous Honeybees of the Himalayas (Vol. 1)

Profile of the study area
The climate of Kaski district varies from sub-tropical to temperate, sub-alpine and alpine zones according to altitudes. March to June is dry and hot, rainy season from July to September is wet, warm and the sky remains overcast for most of the time. During this period more than 70% rainfall occurs. The period from October to November is dry and warm while December to February is cold. The northern part of the district falls under Himalayan range and the temperature falls below zero.

Floral diversity of Kaski district, which extends from sub-tropical to alpine regions, provides most appropriate environment for regulating and providing year round foraging to Apis laboriosa and other honeybee populations. Availability of this diverse flora with cross cutting, overlapping and breaking nectar flows offer best conditions for perpetuation and multiplication and determining migratory pattern of this bee species.

The area provides beautiful setting and synchronization of different tribes in most of the villages. Villages are comprised of Brahmins, Chhetries, Gurungs and other groups of the society.

Apis laboriosa honey hunting
The practice of hunting honey is very ancient art and still exists in many parts of HKH region. More than 50% of honey produced in HKH region is harvested and gathered by honey hunters. Traditional value of this practice is an important element of lifestyle of Razis and Kurumbas in Nepal and India respectively (Valli, 1998 and Keystone, 1994). In Nepal and particularly in Kaski, there is a collective-ownership system on Apis laboriosa colonies, which means that colonies belong to the village, which has either land ownership or common property rights on the cliff. However, during last decade cliff ownership system is transforming and government control over them is strengthening (Forest Act, 1992, 2049 B.S.).

Some findings and impressions about Apis laboriosa nesting sites

  • In total 26 nesting sites were visited. During the visit it was found that all the nesting sites are located near major water bodies in the river valleys, which explains that water requirement of Apis laboriosa is enormous. Cliffs were found located between 20-200 m from major water source, which includes cliff height as well. It is interesting to note that only one cliff is located 1000m away from the major water body.
  • Most of the bee cliffs were facing towards southeast and southwest, which shows that this giant bee requires, prolonged photo- period for successful foraging.
  • Cliff observation revealed that most of the cliffs are located in a very difficult terrain hence making it practically impossible for humans to encroach into the nesting sites.
  • All the cliffs were found devoid of any green outgrowth except minor vegetative growths on few of the cliffs. This attitude of nesting shows that this honeybee carries on self-protective behavior from generations. Local people and honey hunters also confirmed our hypothesis.
  • Another observation reveals that though Apis laboriosa nests in remote areas but disturbances like noise and traffic does not impact much on the nesting behavior which is clearly manifested in Lamakhet and Kodari nesting sites. Kodari nesting site is directly located on China-Nepal highway while Lamakhet nesting sites is located on the tourist trek.
  • It was further observed that number of nests on most of the cliffs is decreasing due to changes in agricultural patterns, significant decline in wilderness, population pressure, soil erosion, landslides caused by road and tourist track construction. Diseases and parasites induced by Apis mellifera introduction and indiscriminate honey hunting initiated by irresponsible contractual hunting arrangements also attributed to the decline in bee populations.
  • Decrease in productivity of major nesting sites irrespective of colony number were also reported by honey hunters and villagers, which seems another outcome of land use changes. Ghachowk's cliff, for example, was earlier hosting around 120 colonies, now is devoid of colonies. Carrying capacity of this area decreased significantly when the broad leaf mixed forests of these areas were converted into paddy and maize fields. These examples are not limited to Ghachowk area but also visible in Tomejung, Taprang and other areas.
  • Hornet nests were observed on most of the cliffs side by side with the bee nests. Hornets not only pick Apis laboriosa bees during their flight but also predate on them while they are foraging.
  • Fallen bees and brood is eaten by squirrels, lizards and taken away by ants. Though bear is very important predator of Apis laboriosa but his predation depends upon the location of cliff and accessibility.


Honey hunting equipment
Most of the tools and equipment used in the honey hunting evolved locally and is made of local materials like mountain bamboo and bamboo-based fiber materials. The description of different equipment used in honey hunting is detailed in the following Table.

Description of honey hunting equipment

S.N. Name Description
1 Prang (ladder) Made from bamboo fiber, 70 meters long (depending upon the height of cliff) and 2 cm in diameter. The steps are made of wooden planks
2 Uab (Rope) A kind of rope used for tightening the ladder to the tree trunk on the top of the cliff. It is made of bamboo fiber. Its length ranges from 5-10 meters depending upon the distance between tree trunk and the cliff
3 Pechho (Rope) It is also a kind of rope used for hanging bamboo basket. It is made of Allo (Girardia diversifolia) fiber. Its length ranges between 50 - 70 meters
4 Korko/Tokari (Bamboo basket) It is used for honey collection and is made of bamboo strips with the holding capacity of 20 liters
5 Chhyakal/Khaal (Basket lining) Earlier lamb's skin was used in the basket to prevent honey from leakage but plastic sheets are being used these days
6 Tango/Ghochma (Stick) A bamboo stick fixed with a sickle or wooden plate at one end, which is used for cutting combs during honey hunting. It is about 7 meters long depending upon horizontal distance between nest and cliff end
7 Saaton (Stick) A bamboo stick similar to Tango but with notched end to fix the hook. It is also 7 meters long
8 Koili chho (Rope with hook) A rope fixed with hook and made of locally available fiber materials. It is around 14 meters long and used for separating the brood portion from honeycomb
9 Koho chho (Fastening belt) A rope used for fastening honey hunter to ladder for safety. It is made of local fiber materials
10 Chhora (Filter) It is made of bamboo cortex for filtering honey
11 Donga (Wax pot) It is made of wood and used for wax collection
12 Tuju (Rope) It's a rope being used to balance ladder by tightening in different points and positions
13 Whibe (Rope) A rope made from bamboo fibers and used for manipulating ladder's direction and positioning from the ground
14 Dabilo (Wooden knife) Wooden or iron knife fixed to the one end of bamboo stick used for cutting brood combs

Honey hunting techniques
Each area has its own distinctive style of honey hunting to suit local resources and bees. The basic method of lighting fire under the bee cliffs to smoke the bees from the combs appears to be universal. However, socio-cultural and spiritual practices carried out prior to hunting honey are quite different from community to community.

A group of about a dozen men-with ropes, ladders, poles, baskets and pots proceed to the cliff. First, a worship and sacrifice is performed and cliff god is offered with flowers, fruits and rice grains. At the base of the rock a fire is made from wood and foliage, so that the smoke rise to disperse the bees upwards from the lower edges of their combs, leaving the brood and honey sections of the combs clearly visible. A ladder is suspended from the top of the cliff, tightly secured to trees at both upper and lower ends. 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 the rope is held securely. Two to three persons are responsible for checking, raising and lowering the rope to send items down from above and pull items up from the floor as necessary. One person, who perches on overhanging tree, looks the event carefully and gives signals to others. Near the ladder a large woven collecting basket is lowered to the nest site through another rope. 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. Its base is guided by a rope held by the people at the base of the cliff. First the brood portion of the comb is separated. The honey hunter uses a bamboo stick to pierce a hole in the brood comb area of the colony to be harvested. By piercing the comb and attaching hook to the comb, honey hunter cuts the brood portion of the comb safely. After that, wooden or iron sickles fixed to the bamboo stick cut honeycombs. Basket is guided to catch the chunks of honey as they drop down. When full, the basket is lowered down to the ground, emptied and used again. The whole operation from start to finish is very delicate. It may take 2-3 hours or more just to harvest one of the many colonies.

 

Traditional beliefs, superstitions and local practices
Following is given some details about traditional beliefs, superstitions and local practices:

  • Tuesday is the best day for initiating honey-hunting event while Wednesday is not suitable for this event.
  • Honey hunting is not allowed in 8th, 11th, 23rd, 26th and 30th day of moon cycle.
  • Honey hunters believe that there are two gods in the forest i.e. local god, who looks after local events and the real god of cliff. Worshiping of these gods is mandatory by sacrificing, goat, sheep or chicken for giving blood in the name of god. Worship is also performed for those who passed away from the village.
  • Either morning or evening time is considered good for honey hunting.
  • In some places there is practice of pouring milk to the cliff before initiating honey hunting.
  • Women are not even allowed to watch honey-hunting event in certain communities. They have to stay quite far from cliff site. It is believed that if they participate then the bees will be very aggressive.
  • Main honey hunter gets the head of sacrificed animal while meat-cooked during the event is also tasted first by the honey hunter.
  • One can not join honey-hunting team if his wife is menstruated or pregnant of over 6 months.


Social dimension and economics
During the period of isolation and exclusion when communication between communities was difficult due to non-availability of roads and other communication infrastructure, honey hunting was an issue of livelihoods. Its status as a livelihood issue is changing day by day because farmers are earning money from other sources like cash crops, daily waged labor and remittances. Interview based information revealed that the total amount of honey produced in 26 nesting sites of Apis laboriosa is around 3053 Kgs per year. Twelve villages are involved in this process. The major thrust of these communities is on social gathering, interactions and belief-based rituals rather than income generation from the sale proceed of honey.

Direct benefit of honey hunting in the context of income generation is limited and mainly comes from spring harvest which is sold to exporter on higher rates for export to Korean and Japanese markets. The red honey collected by Apis laboriosa bee during spring season from white rhododendron, Bikh (Aconitum spp.), Pangra (Entada scanders) and Niramasi are considered intoxicated. Intoxicating honey is not consumed locally while exporters benefit from the export of this honey due to its medicinal value and relaxing properties.

Another dimension of honey hunting is linked with fast growing tourism industry in Nepal, which started attracting tourists intended to experience honey hunting in the high hills of Himalayas. It was reported that these honey-hunting groups pay US$ 250-1500 for experiencing one honey-hunting event.

Issues, Opportunities and Recommendations
Issues:

  • Significant reduction in the number of honey hunters: Decrease in the number of honey hunters is attributed to this fact that most of the honey hunters are aging and new generation is least interested in adopting this profession due to the difficulties, risks, limited cash income and many other factors. Communities living beside the cliffs were cemented together due to survival requirements, which is changing day by day because of in-out migration, job opportunities, increased income, better communication and infrastructure.
  • Declining Apis laboriosa population: Apis laboriosa population in the area is declining (see Annex 1) due to changes in agricultural landscape, productivity patterns, significant decline in wilderness, population pressure, soil erosion, landslides caused by road and tourist track construction. Diseases and parasites induced by Apis mellifera introduction and indiscriminate honey hunting initiated by irresponsible contractual hunting arrangements also attributed to the decline in bee populations. Melissococcus pluton, a pathogenic agent of Apis mellifera has already been reported in Apis laboriosa (Allen et al (1990).
  • Economic and marketing issues: Though price of intoxicating and regular Apis laboriosa honey is increasing day by day but honey hunters and the communities who own the proprietary rights of cliff bees are not benefiting from the increase in price of honey. This phenomenon is due to inaccessibility, marginality and lack of marketing skills among honey hunting communities.


Opportunities

  • Presence of Apis laboriosa honeybees in Nepal.
  • Pollination services of Apis laboriosa in the context of biodiversity conservation cum productivity enhancement are important and this ensures the continuity for those plant species, which are now restricted in high altitude virgin forests of Nepal.
  • Presence of poisonous nectar producing high altitude plant species of the family Leguminaceae, Ericaceae, Ranunculacae beside the presence of Apis laboriosa honeybees is a great opportunity for honey hunters. This comparative advantage will help them in increasing their income.
  • Existence of indigenous honey hunting communities will provide a basis for promoting community-based eco-tourism industry in Nepal.


Recommendations

  • Conservation of Apis laboriosa nesting sites, development of their locational database and their collective monitoring by local communities and development agencies (forest department, VDC, etc.).
  • Conservation of honey-hunting traditions and culture.
  • Capacity building of honey hunters and concerned government departments in the context of conservation and planned harvesting.
  • Initiation of reversal process on the issues of cliff ownership, so that gradually cliff ownership will again go to the local communities.
  • Ban on the use of climbing gear for honey hunting by tourists and local people.
  • Establishment of bee-based tourism mechanism with the participation of tour operators, conservation advocacy groups and local communities.
  • Establishment of micro-enterprises for the development and value addition of Apis laboriosa honey and wax.


Acknowledgements
Financial support by Austroprojekt through the project ‘Indigenous Honeybees in the Himalayas: A Community Based Approach to Conserving Biodiversity and Increasing Farm Productivity’ in carrying out the work is thankfully acknowledged.

References

  • Ahmad, F and Roy, P (2000) Bhutan: Indigenous Honeybee Project Study, Travel Report, ICIMOD, Kathmandu, Nepal
  • Allen, M F, Ball, B V, and Underwood, B A (1990) An isolate of Melissococcus pluton from Apis laboriosa. Journal of Invertebrate Pathology 55: 439-440.
  • Crane, E (1999) The World History of Beekeeping and Honey Hunting. Duckworth, UK.
  • Forest Act, 1992(2049 BS). HMG/Nepal, Ministry of Forest and Soil Conservation, Kathmandu, Nepal.
  • Keystone (1994) Honey Hunters of Blue Mountains, Keystone Foundation, Tamil Nadu, India
  • Underwood, B A (1986) The Natural History of Apis laboriosa Smith in Nepal. Master’s Thesis. Cornell University, USA.
  • Valli, E (1998). Hunting for Honey: Adventures with the Rajis of Nepal. Pp 178

This article was prepared based on the book published by ICIMOD entitled “The Himalayan Cliff Bee Apis Laboriosa and the Honey Hunters of Kaski: Indigenous Honeybees of the Himalayas (Vol I) – Authors are Ahmad, F, Joshi SR and Gurung MB (2003).