The Dangerous, Spiritual Work of Harvesting Mad Honey
Imagine for a moment the exhilaration you’d feel gathering psychotropic honey from a massive, natural, pulsing beehive, nestled in an isolated section of the Himalayan mountains, guarded by the largest honeybees in the world.
Now consider that this hive is located on a sheer cliff wall 300 feet above the ground, reachable only by a hand-made rope ladder. The approach involves scaling with the narrowest of handholds as your feet, face, and hands suffer sting after sting from the angry bees. One lapse in concentration means certain death on the rocks below.
This is the process that certain members of the Kulung culture in eastern Nepal have followed for thousands of years to procure mad honey, the sticky, reddish fluid containing psychotropic compounds contained in the flowers of the native rhododendron trees that the bees pollinate. This honey is a staple for the local villages, highly prized for its medicinal and consciousness-expanding properties.
And harvesting it has become a spiritual journey as much as it is a taxing, dangerous physical one.
Appealing to Rangkemi, the Guardian Spirit of the Bees
As the mad honey hunter and his partner dangle precariously from their ladder, considering the approach they must take up the cliff wall, they keep Rangkemi in their thoughts.
Rangkemi is the guardian spirit of the honeybees and of dangerous places, and currying his
favor allows this treacherous harvest to proceed without fear and without incident.
Swinging from the ladder to the cliff face itself involves grabbing onto handholds no larger than a brick and then releasing the ladder into the ether. Bees flow like water around the surface of the hive, streaming off in massive clouds, obscuring the vision of the mad honey hunters below.
As they scale the cliff getting ever closer to the hive, handholds shrink until there’s barely any to speak of. Only the most skilled climbers can maintain their grip here as they manipulate tools and mutter their invocations to the spirit of the bees.
Seeking to remind Rangkemi of the long relationship he has with the Kulung people they speak phrases that their ancestors have used for millennia like, “Rangkemi, spirit of the bees.
We do not come to steal from you. We are not thieves. You are our ancestors. Please fly from here. Please give us an opening.”
Using a small clutch of smoldering grass to smoke the bees out of a section of the hive, these intrepid mad honey hunters collect their prize unafraid, protected by the spirits and their long tradition, that stretches into the immemorial past.
The Past Meets the Present
Mad honey and the remote villages that collect it have been cut off from the rest of the world for the entirety of their history. But this is beginning to change.
Tourist paths are cutting through virgin forest, and areas once unknown and impassable to the outside world are opening up to exploration. This is both a good and bad thing for the mad honey hunters of Nepal. New markets for their products are opening, creating opportunities for the village that hadn’t existed before.
But as it goes with intrusions from outside cultures, a watering down of local traditions can
result. Time will tell what this means for the spirit of the bees and its courageous kin.