The Last Death-Defying Psychotropic Honey Hunter of Nepal

June 28, 2017

One man from the Kulung culture harvests psychotropic honey that is guarded by capricious spirits and the world’s largest honeybees.

Mauli Dhan climbs a hundred feet up a bamboo rope ladder to his prize: a hive filled with neurotoxic honey. Smoke from smoldering grass disorients the bees, possibly reducing the number of stings Mauli will suffer. Before he grabs the support rope beside him, a misstep could be fatal.

Three hundred feet in the air, Mauli Dhan dangles on a bamboo rope ladder, surveying the section of granite he must climb to reach his goal: a pulsing mass of thousands of Himalayan giant honeybees. They carpet a crescent-shaped hive stretching almost six feet below a granite overhang. The bees are guarding gallons of a sticky, reddish fluid known as mad honey, which, thanks to its hallucinogenic properties, sells on Asian black markets for $60 to $80 a pound—roughly six times the price of regular Nepali honey.

Himalayan honeybees make several types of honey depending on the season and the elevation of the flowers that produce the nectar they eat. The psychotropic effects of the spring honey result from toxins found in the flowers of massive rhododendron trees, whose bright pink, red, and white blossoms bloom each March and April on north-facing hillsides throughout the Hongu Valley. The Kulung people of eastern Nepal have used the honey for centuries as a cough syrup and an antiseptic, and the beeswax has found its way into workshops in the alleys of Kathmandu, where it is used to cast bronze statues of gods and goddesses.

For Mauli, honey hunting is the only way to earn the cash he needs to buy the few staples he can’t produce himself, including salt and cooking oil. But no matter how important the money is to him and to others in his village far below, Mauli believes it is time to stop doing this. At 57 he is too old to be attempting this dangerous, seasonal honey harvest. His arms grow tired as the ladder swings in space. Bees buzz around him, stinging him on his face, neck, hands, bare feet, and through his clothes.

But he pushes aside such thoughts and focuses on the problem at hand. He swings his leg over to the rock face and steps onto a small ledge, barely the width of a brick. Letting go of the rope ladder, he shuffles sideways to make room for Asdhan Kulung, his assistant, to join him. Now both men share the narrow ledge. Far below, Mauli can see the river, swollen with monsoonal runoff, cascading down a V-shaped valley.

With each move toward the hive, the holds get smaller and farther apart. He moves slowly but with confidence until only 10 feet separate him from his quarry. This final section of loose, wet rock offers hand- and footholds no bigger than Mauli’s fingertips, and since he is not attached to a safety rope, it would be certain death should he lose his grip. Adding to his challenge, he carries a 25-foot bamboo pole hooked over one shoulder, and he pinches a bundle of smoldering grass between the thumb and forefinger of his right hand. A wispy trail of smoke drifts upward from his hand toward the agitated bees. If air currents cooperate, the smoke may engulf the bees and confuse them slightly as he approaches.

The hive pulses like a subwoofer, each beat sending waves of angry bees into the air. They continue to swarm Mauli, but he doesn’t flinch. Instead he murmurs a Kulung mantra meant to appease the bees and the spirits that inhabit this cliff: “You are Rangkemi. You are of the bee spirits. We are not thieves. We are not bandits. We are with our ancestors. Please fly. Please leave.”

Rangkemi, the guardian spirit of bees and of difficult, dangerous places, has always looked after Mauli, and there is no reason to believe he will abandon him now. With this knowledge in his heart, Mauli shows no fear as he commits to the most difficult part of the climb.

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