Honey to Die For
The harmony of the Gurung people with Mother Nature's bees and their honey has been a tradition; but that relationship is being jeopardized by greed.

illustration by Jake Johnson

Deep in the heart of the Himalayas, Mother Nature has been conducting a hidden transaction between man and bees for years. The Gurungs, an ethnic group in Nepal, have been collecting the unique honey by climbing down jagged cliffs on handmade ropes of bamboo and wood for centuries. If the thought of dangling off cliffs on bamboo ladders in the middle of the Himalayas isn’t frightening enough, then perhaps it is wise not to think of the giant honey bees that dominate the cliffs. These bees, known as the Himalayan giant honey bee are the world’s largest honey bees, measuring up to 1.2 inches in length.

In this pocket of the Himalayas, Mother Nature has maintained a rather sacred relationship with flowers and bees. The local Nepalis have harmonized this relationship, respecting nature as divinity and in return they are rewarded with this unique honey. Unfortunately, human beings are flawed, and this would all be a fairy tale if the honey bandits did not exist. The tribes collect the honey respectfully, but there are others—some locals, some from afar—who destroy the hives of these magical bees only to profit from their broken homes. With time, this equilibrium of respect and greed will topple, leaving the bees victimised, and the Himalayas, disrespected.   

One may be wondering, why risk falling off a cliff and getting stung by giant bees for something so simple and common as honey? The honey these men hunt for is known globally as “mad honey” or “hallucinogenic honey,” and is prized for its medicinal and aphrodisiac qualities.

The honey gets its unique feature through all of nature’s parameters. According to articles in Vice and National Geographic, the bees of the Himalayan region make several types of honey, and some are literally intoxicating. Nepal’s national flower, the rhododendron, is in full bloom from March to April. Known in Nepal as gurans, the rhododendrons bright red, pink, and white blossoms are home to a pollen that contains a particular toxin called grayanotoxin. When bees come to these flowers, the pollen is picked up and brought back to the hive where it is infused with their honey, giving the honey its drug-like quality. During the spring season, the flowers bloom at a height that only these large bees can reach. Therefore, the potency of this honey depends on the blossoming of the rhododendrons. As Vice’s David Caprara writes about his visit to the location of these hives, “There’s no way to control the amount of rhododendron pollen consumed by the bees, so the potency of the high-inducing honey varies from season to season, if there are any effects at all.”

Usually the villagers that live in the area harvest the honey for personal consumption, as it has been a tradition for their tribes for years. There are articles that discuss the honey being commercialized, with its hallucinogenic properties being a self-advertiser. National Geographic estimates that this honey sells for $60–$80 a pound on Asian black markets, which is about six times the price of normal Nepali honey. This is a problem, if we take conservation of the bees into consideration. There is a finite amount of hives, and if the greed for profits take over the people, they might inflict harm on the whole process of the pollination. A lack of authority and enforcement towards this honey could prove fatal. The conservation and balance of the flowers and bees is important. Also, the circulation of honey of such potent toxicity must be taken into account. If there are no steps taken towards the illegal trade of this honey, many people could face health consequences.

One or two teaspoons is usually enough to intoxicate a person if the honey is extremely rich with the grayanotoxin. Exceeding this limit may lead to convulsions and often results in serious consequences. A user may end up losing the ability to walk or lose consciousness. According to an article published in the US National Library of Medicine, “Consumption of grayanotoxin containing leaves, flowers or secondary products as honey may result in intoxication specifically characterized by dizziness, hypotension and atrial-ventricular block.” Atrioventricular block can cause many problems with the heart, and if severe enough could possibly result in cardiac arrest. A lot of research has been done with honey infused with grayanotoxin and is still ongoing.

Bangladesh, which is not that far from Nepal, also has an excellent reputation of large, dangerous bees. Up until I came across the topic of hallucinogenic honey, I was under the impression that the bees of the Bangladeshi Sundarbans were the largest in the world. However, according to an article from the BBC, the bees from my country may not be the largest, but are included in the list of the largest and most aggressive bees in the world. I have personally witnessed the harvesting of honey in the Sundarbans and the honey hunters showed me their conservation technique. The hunters only carve out a bit more than half the hive, and leave the rest stuck to the tree branches. That way, the honey will not be over harvested and the bees will not be harmed. The honey of the Sundarbans, however, has no toxic quality, and therefore has a value for its smoky and sweet flavour. The problem with the honey from Nepal, is that there appears to be no conservation technique. Another predicament is that there are hunters with different intentions. Some hunt the honey for tradition, but in recent times there are more people hunting the honey’s intoxicating properties solely for profit.

I reached out to a friend, Tasnif Rahman, who is working with embryonic stem cells and is studying cardiac development at Rochester Polytechnic Institute, about why the bees are not affected by the hallucinogenic properties of their honey. According to Rahman “bees lack the mechanism that the hallucinogens interact with in humans. This is because bees and humans have vastly different genomes.”

I was also interested about the replication of this honey. If someone started planting the rhododendron flowers, could they make their own mad honey? I asked another friend, Ryan Colunga, about his thoughts on this process of replicating the infused honey. Colunga is a biology student at Portland State and hopes to one day transition into species conservation. He had not come across hallucinogenic honey before, but replied, “To call it infused honey is to call any honey infused honey.” He said humans are a key parameter in the infusion process, if one were to try to replicate this honey in another part of the world. While talking more about the replication of honey in a lab, for instance, Colunga says, “the honey found in stores, like the ones in the little bear bottles, are mostly carbohydrates and high fructose corn syrup.” This replication comes at a cost. The honey replicated will not have the same properties of the original natural honey.

Regardless of the replication process, it is a fact that honey with such hallucinogenic properties can only be found in the Himalayan regions. Such honey may be present in other parts of the world, but it may not be as potent as the one from Nepal. The tribes that are involved with this honey for generations now see it as divine. However, other locals priorities lie solely in commercializing the honey. If the balance of tradition and commerce is ruined, we may lose nature’s magnificent, hallucinogenic-honey makers forever. One can only pray that this honey, and the bees that make it, receive the proper attention that is required. The purpose of documenting such unique delicacies of nature should be so that people can learn and preserve, not over consume and exploit to extinction.

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