Hunting For Hallucinogenic Honey Ties Native Nepalis Back to Their Ancestors

It’s a tradition that dates back thousands of years. The Gurung people of Nepal scale the walls of nearby cliffs in an annual honey hunt that brings them into contact with the largest honey bees in the world. They risk life and limb to bring back a special, mind-expanding honey that’s only found in a few places in the world.

The older hunters participated because it’s what their people have always done. The honey brought a spark to their lives and brought them closer to the spirit of the bees. Today’s younger generation isn’t as dependent on local traditions for their livelihoods. Instead, they do it to stay connected to their roots, to keep alive the death-defying practice that has defined their people.

To the uninitiated, the process seems terrifying. And that’s because it is. But it’s also a lifeline back to an ancient culture that’s rapidly changing in the modern world.

The Outside is Encroaching

For millennia the Gurung — like those found in Talo Chipla, a small village located in the Himalayan mountains — have supported themselves as farmers and honey hunters. But today roads are being carved into their remote forests and the outside world is knocking at their doors.

A new hydroelectric dam in the region employs many younger Talo Chipla residents. They don’t depend on village life or their old agricultural ways the way previous generations did. As the number of villagers leaving their homes to work abroad increases year after year, many report feeling disconnected from their cultural identities.

Honey hunting, many residents say, is a visceral, thrilling way to recapture some of that identity. But it isn’t for the faint of heart.

Village elders talk about the hunt with a reverence that verges on spiritual. Only the strong may participate, they say, those able to control their fear and stare down death unflinchingly.

Imagine descending down a sheer cliff wall, with giant coffee table-sized bee hives blanketing the cliff face. The hunters dangle from homemade bamboo ladders, lashed carefully to trees above. Baskets are hung under the hives while far below, villagers burn fires. The smoke helps to pacify the bees, decreasing the incidence of attack.

With tenuous footholds, the honey hunters reach out into space, hacking away bits of hive, hoping to land them in the baskets. Those pieces that miss, explode in a spray of honey and wax on the rocks below. The hunters try very hard not to suffer the same fate.

They aren’t always successful. But the vast majority do return with honey aplenty and exhilarating tales of the hunt.

The Honey is Worth the Effort

It might seem odd that these intrepid hunters are willing to risk their lives for such an unassuming product, but this is no ordinary honey. The elixir they’re after contains grayanotoxin, a mild hallucinogen that’s at once a stimulant, pain killer, and sedative sleep aid. Called “mad honey” this potent sweetener is an inextricable part of the Gurung culture.

Its analgesic properties offer respite from the aches and pains suffered after hours of difficult agricultural work. It grants a happy pop of euphoria that brightens the locals’ lives. It offers calm in the face of anxiety, and it can help bring on restful sleep at the end of a long day.

The bees responsible for creating mad honey bring grayanotoxins back to their hives after collecting nectar from the local rhododendron species that grows wild across the region. The quality and potency of each season’s honey is dependant on that year’s growing conditions and the amount of nectar and pollen the bees collect. But this is all part of the hunt.

And it can be a brutal endeavor even when the hunters manage to keep themselves off the river rocks that are arrayed out hundreds of feet below their ladders. The smoke pacifies the hive to a degree, but the bees still don’t take well to chunks of their home getting chiseled off.

Victorious hunters regularly return from their adventures covered in painful stings, their skin bloated and inflamed. But this does little to scare them off from the next hunt. The scrapes, bruises, and welts are proof of a job well done, and the honey is the spoils.

While Tradition Remains, Changes Are Inevitable

In the centuries prior to the modern era, the Gurung generally kept the honey they secured during the hunts. Its medicinal and stimulant properties were central features of their daily lives.

Today, however, less and less of the year’s harvest is staying in the village. Both the legal and illicit trade of mad honey is increasing. Large markets are opening up in northeastern Asia. People in China, Japan, South Korea, and North Korea are all interested in the sweet elixir they believe promotes erectile health.

On a recent hunt, the young honey hunters of Talo Chipla sold nearly their entire yield to a Japanese buyer interested in bringing the honey back to his home country. While the extra income is nice, the arrangement is also bittersweet. The villagers are simultaneously reconnecting with their roots while also selling it to the highest bidder.

This increase in outsider demand is also motivating honey poachers. So far the government hasn’t reported any major dips in the local bee population, but the prospect of escalating honey theft is concerning for the future health of the giant honey bees and their liquid prize.

For the Gurung, everything is changing, and yet remaining happily similar. The annual hunt will continue, even as the old guard retires. The younger hunters are eager to fill their shoes and continue a tradition that goes back for centuries. It’s hard, painful, and fraught with danger, but these intrepid mad honey hunters wouldn’t have it any other way. The hunt for the honey is their cultural heritage. It remains a tether to the past as well as a bamboo ladder to the future.