Defending the Sacred Honey: The Battle to Protect a Centuries Old Tradition
If you were a member of the Gurung tribe, an ethnic group that calls the Himalayas in Nepal their home, you might one day find yourself participating in an ancient and harrowing tradition.
You would be collecting honey, but not just any honey, and not from any place you might imagine. You would find yourself dangling from a thin bamboo ladder, 300 feet above the ground. Your destination is a massive, undulating beehive, built into the side of a sheer cliff wall, guarded by the largest honey bees in the world. These Himalayan giant honey bees measure up to 1.2 inches in length and can be found swarming in huge numbers around the honey prize you’re after.
As you release the ladder and free climb without a harness, navigating handholds barely large enough to grasp you might ask yourself what could possibly be so special about this honey that it’s worth risking your life for. But that’s you, an outsider asking the question. The Gurung know full well why they brave the cliff and the bees.
They do it for the mystical “mad honey”, the medicinal, hallucinogenic honey that’s been prized by their culture and others for millennia.
For most of their history, the Gurung, the only people in Nepal with access to this precious resource, have lived in harmony with the guardian spirit of the bees. They’ve taken only what they need, making sure not to harm the bees, to ensure the cycle would continue.
In recent years this harmony has been disturbed. As word about the potent, mind-expanding honey spread to the rest of the world, honey poachers began appearing. These outsiders had no respect for the bees, the Gurung, or the ancient pact they forged for the honey. These honey thieves are driven by greed, and their unchecked aggression in pursuit of profit is leaving hives broken, bees killed, and the future of mad honey in question.
Why Mad Honey is So Special
Mad honey’s unique properties result from a twist of geography and botany. The nectar the bees use to brew their mystical sweetener comes from a specific variety of rhododendron found only in certain mountainous regions of the world. In Nepal, vast fields of the plant grow at altitude throughout the Himalayas. The flowers contain compounds called grayanotoxins, and these sacred chemicals hitch a ride with the bees and get incorporated into their honey.
Grayanotoxins have no effect on the insects, but in humans, the compound causes an uplifting euphoria and feelings of calm and contentedness at lower doses. Locals usually smear a spoon or two onto bread in the morning and then enjoy a pleasant boost throughout their day.
The grayanotoxins found in mad honey are prized equally for their medicinal qualities. The honey is used regularly to treat arthritis, hypertension, stomach ailments, migraines, and anxiety. The calming effect is a natural sedative, useful for those suffering from insomnia and other sleep disorders. Whether used for daytime clarity or nighttime drowsiness, mad honey works on both a physical and emotional level.
Like most traditional medicines, the user must know and respect mad honey, and use it sparingly. At normal doses, it’s entirely safe. However, if too much is eaten at once it can cause a number of unpleasant side effects, including weakness, dizziness, low blood pressure, nausea, and vomiting. But these are the exception, not the rule. A spoonful or two is all you need to enjoy the benefits.
Mad Honey Should Be Enjoyed, But it Also Must Be Protected
Currently, mad honey sells for the equivalent of $60 to $80 per pound on the Asian black market. This represents a six times premium over the cost of standard Nepali honey. As demand grows, these prices become too enticing for poachers to ignore.
The Himalayan bees that create mad honey enjoy no governmental protections. Up until now, the ruggedness of the terrain, and the difficult approach to the hives have kept all but the most devoted thieves away. But this is changing. Paths are being cut into the forests. Foreigners are coming in unchecked. And hives are being pilfered without regard for bee safety.
Some might ask why these interlopers don’t just plant their own fields of rhododendron and coax other bee populations into producing the prize they seek. They likely would, if they could, but the needed rhododendron species only grow in rugged, mountainous environments.
So why not infuse regular honey with grayanotoxins distilled in a lab? It’s simply not the same. Rhododendrons give rise to up to 25 different grayanotoxins, in varying quantities. As the bees process the nectar into honey, these compounds are naturally and organically infused. Trying to recreate this in the lab is exceedingly difficult, and the result doesn’t compare to the real thing.
It’s therefore critical that we protect the delicate balance between flower and bee, and protect the hives that have produced mad honey for thousands of years.
Responsible, Sustainable Harvesting is Critical
The Gurung and the bees are willing to share. They ask only that harvesting is left to those that understand how to do it sustainably. They ask that their traditions are honored and that the agreement they made with the guardian spirit of the bees is kept intact.
We source our mad honey only from local harvesters steeped in the ancient traditions. The healing properties of this special honey are now available to everyone, and with proper stewardship, will continue to be.
Our goal is to bring responsibly-sourced mad honey products to the world so that there’s no need for a black market. Without illicit demand, the poachers will move on and the hives will be protected.
Mad honey is a treasure worth protecting. The Gurung know it. Their death-defying harvests are a testament to the substance’s value. We can only hope that they’re allowed to keep their vigil through the centuries to come. It would be a loss of inestimable depth if the bees of the Himalayas were ever driven to extinction.