Honey gatherers in Nepal say that fewer beehives are threatening their tradition

TAAP (Reuters) – Aita Gurung dangled from a cliff, using a long pole that had a blade on the end to carefully cut off chunks of honeycomb. Himalayan bees were fleeing fumes released by a fire lit to force them out of their nests.

The 40-year old wore a white beanie with a net covering his face for protection against stings while hanging 160 feet (50m) from the precipice using a ladder made of bamboo strands.

Aita said, “It’s fraught with falling danger.” Her community traditionally harvests honey from beehives hundreds of feet above the ground. “You must be safe while extracting honey.”

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Experts say that climate change is threatening the centuries-old craft of beekeeping. They claim that the rising temperatures will disrupt the growth of the bees and their ability to pollinate plants.

Chitra Bahadur Gurun, 49, a member of the community said, “There were 35 hives in last year.” She added, “We have barely 15 now.”

Since generations, the Gurung people in Taap (about 175 km west of Kathmandu) and in other nearby villages such as Lamjung and Kaski have been searching for honey on the steep Himalayan mountains.

The villagers had earlier participated in a ritual sacrifice of a red chicken, which involved separating the feet and feathers to offer to the gods on the cliffs. They were asking forgiveness for taking honey from giant bees known as Apis labouriosa by scientists.

Honeycomb extract is also called’mad honey,’ for its intoxicating properties that can cause hallucinations. It sells at 2,000 Nepali Rupees ($1.5), but the villager’s rule out overharvesting for the reason of falling collections.

As the number of beehives decreases, the proceeds are being divided among the group. However, some villagers earn their living by growing rice, corn and millet.

Hemraj Gurung, 41, says that honey collecting has decreased in the last decade due to the fact that less honey is available each year.

He said, “We harvested around 600 kg of honey ten years ago. That fell to 180 kg last and just about 100 kilograms this year.”

Experts blame climate change, a result of a global temperature rise, for the decline. Other factors include deforestation and diversion of water to hydroelectric dams.

United Nations data as well as independent research shows that temperatures in the Himalayas – home to some of the highest peaks on the planet – are higher than the global average increase of 1.2°C above preindustrial levels.

Suruchi Bhadwal, of India’s Energy and Resources Institute, told reporters that global studies have shown that a temperature increase of just one degree can affect the growth of bees and the availability of food for them, as well as the cross-pollination of flowers.

Bhadwal said that research showed climate change disrupted the food chain for bees, and also affected the flowering plants and their populations around the world.

She said, “I think that the patterns in Nepal are similar to what we’re discussing.”

Surendra Raj Joshi is a specialist on resilient livelihoods at the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development in Kathmandu.

He said that “too much or too less rain, intense or irregular rain, long dry spells, or high temperature fluctuations, puts stress on honeybees in order to maintain colony health and honey stocks.”

He said that the weather changes are the most obvious indicator of climate change.

Experts say that floods and landslides may cause habitat loss, and reduce the area where bees are able to forage.

Joshi, an expert in bees, says that the decline in bee population means insufficient pollination for high mountain crops and wild plants.

Joshi said that the honey hunt is an eco-tourism tradition which will have a significant impact on rural economies. “Communities will lose tourism income, as well as honey and beeswax.”

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