First published in Northern Lights (North Devon Beekeepers Association), May 2015

Next time you pop down to collect honey from your hives, spare a thought for Bhim, a Nepalese honey gatherer from the foothills of the Annapurna region. Each year Bhim and his fellow Gurung villagers trek for two hours into the mountains, until they reach the base of a 50-metre high rock face. There, suspended from the roof of the cliff, hang dozens of semi-circular golden discs of honeycomb, constructed by the largest honeybee in the world, the Himalayan honey bee (Apis laboriosa).

I recently travelled with a BBC TV crew to film the honey gatherers harvesting these gigantic combs. 

Collecting the honey is no mean feat. To begin with, the sheer cliff is only accessible from above. The villagers fashion a rope ladder, using thin strips of bamboo twisted together for rope. Whilst one team climbs up to the top of the cliff and secures top of the rope ladder, another team gathers huge piles of leaves at the base of the cliff, directly under the honeycombs. These piles are then burnt, sending plumes of smoke up into the air, dislodging the bees from the combs, until the air is thick with smoke and bees. The rope ladder is then thrown down from above, coming to rest only a few feet away from the combs.

This is the moment that 68-year old Bhim has been waiting all year for. Wearing nothing more than a thin nylon jacket and no gloves or head net, he gingerly climbs down the rope ladder until he is level with the combs. The bees furiously attack him, but his leathery skin is no match for their stings. He merely swats them away as if they were nothing more than an annoying fly. With no harness to prevent him from falling, Bhim simply hooks his bare feet around the rope ladder to brace himself. A long bamboo pole is then lowered on a rope to him, with a removable toggle attached to its end by another piece of twine. Holding on to the rope ladder with one hand, he manoeuvres the pole as expertly as would a medieval knight, holding a jousting lance. He pokes a hole through the honeycomb until the wooden toggle detaches itself on the reverse, anchoring the honeycomb. Bhim shouts up to his cliff-top team to now take the strain of the toggled rope, as he begins to cut through the 50kg honeycomb, using another pole, this time with a curved knife attached to it. The blade easily carves through the wax and in seconds the golden disc is cut free, swinging away from the cliff on the rope, followed by its angry inhabitants.

The cliff-top team gently lower their gilded prize down to the ground, as Bhim eyes up another honeycomb to harvest. Only a few honeycombs are removed, and the majority are left untouched. The Gurung only take what they need and leave the rest as nature intended. After loading up their wicker backpacks with as much honeycomb as they can carry, they hike back to their village to share their winnings with the whole community.

In order to film this sequence, required us to wear full bee suits, which given the oppressive heat and humidity of Nepal, wasn’t the most comfortable job I’ve ever done. Thankfully though, the suits protected us from the bees. However, our cameraman did get stung on his ring finger, which swelled up so much that I had to perform emergency surgery and cut it off using a pair of wire cutters!