The largest honeybees in the world, Himalayan giant honeybees, produce some of the world's most cherished honey. It's known as mad honey, a reddish sweet goop with psychotropic properties that in reasonable doses are reportedly pleasant.
Haven't heard of this delectable treat? That's probably because it's extremely difficult to harvest. If the bees' stings — which can pierce through most beekeeper suits — don't ward you off, the sheer Himalayan cliffs where the bees plaster their large crescent-shaped hives probably will. Those who dare to gather the honey do so at their own peril, dangling from precarious bamboo rope ladders hundreds of feet above the ground.
But this treacherous cultural practice, perfected by the Kulung people of eastern Nepal, could soon disappear forever. When elder Mauli Dhan, known as the last honey hunter, chooses to retire, his craft could end with him, reports National Geographic.
Mad honey can fetch a hefty price, sold for $60 to $80 a pound (U.S.), but those are black-market prices. You won't find it at your local supermarket. Even at those prices, however, it's barely worth the risk to harvest it, not when you consider the time it takes to learn the skills of this highly specialized trade. Luckily, however, a team of filmmakers have documented Mauli Dhan and his honey hunting craft in a new documentary, "The Last Honey Hunter."
A behind-the-scenes peek of the breathtaking footage can be viewed here:
An intense experience
The honey gets its famous properties from toxins in rhododendron flowers that the bees eat in spring, the only time of year when the honey is hallucinogenic. Two to three teaspoons is usually considered the correct dose. A larger dose, however, can produce a more intense experience, one that may be unpleasant to the uninitiated.
First, you'll probably feel the need to purge (defecate, urinate, vomit), Mark Synnott reports for National Geographic. Then, "after the purge you alternate between light and dark. You can see, and then you can’t see," explained Jangi Kulung, a local honey trader. "A sound — jam jam jam — pulses in your head, like the beehive. You can’t move, but you’re still completely lucid. The paralysis lasts for a day or so."
These more intense experiences, along with a rumored death from overdose, are the primary reasons that this precious honey has become more difficult to sell, and why the cultural practice of harvesting it might soon disappear.
Undoubtedly, when the last honey hunter climbs his last cliff, the hunt for this rare psychotropic delicacy will probably continue in some form. But whether the harvest is done sustainably, in a way that's safe for harvesters, consumers and the bees themselves (their populations are declining), remains in doubt. There's a delicate ecosystem that makes this unique honey possible, and without a balanced and careful harvest, the honey supply may not last long.