Honey Collection Method


The tradition of honey hunting has been practiced around the world for thousands of years, including within the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve. In the Blue Mountains, the tribes who partake in this ancient tradition have developed unique methods and materials best suited for both honey collection from cliffs overhangs and large trees. There is even distinction in methodology for honey hunting between the tribes.

There are several tools that are required for honey collection, some of which are brought from the village while others are made in the forest prior to the night of the honey hunt. Mostly, the only items brought in are a sharp cutting knife for making the forest tools, as well as a filter and tins pans to collect the honey (this does not consider the items such as food and sleeping mats for while staying in the forest). Some of the main items that are made from the forest are a bamboo pole, basket, and sturdy rope made of either tree bark or bamboo. The necessary tools and number of tools also varies between whether the gathering takes places on a tree or cliff.

When having to climb a tree a bamboo pole/ladder is often used. One bamboo with foot sized sprouts on either side will be set against and tied to a tree for climbing or small steps may be cut into the trunk of the tree. If a rope ladder is used it is made with various climber such as the lianas found on tree bark. In some cases people will simply climb the tree bare foot, not using any tools for support. Additionally, coir rope is used to help with climbing towards the branch where the honeycomb is attached. The tool used to cut the comb down will either be an iron or wooden knife, with the wooden version more often being used by the Sholigas. Sometimes a knife made of bamboo will be used.

In regards to tree collection, it can be handled with a minimum of 2 people, yet more than 2 will likely be found in a group. Comparatively, honey collection from cliffs requires a long rope to be made in the shape of a ladder because it will be tied to a tree at the top of the cliff and then lowered down the cliff face, some of which can be 400-500 feet in height. The ropes made, from a few days prior, will be constructed of either the stripped bark of a tree or the lianas/vines found on the tree. The bark made rope can last up 7 years while the vine rope is only useful for a season. Some of the species of wild climber and bark of trees include Vakka (Sterculia villos), Biskoti kodi (Derris benthamii) and Ullathi (Debregeasia longifolia).

Another crucial tool is the honey basket – its purpose is to catch the honey and honey comb portions after the honey hunters have cut the main comb. This basket is constructed in the forest and made out of vines, bamboo, as well as cane. The inner part of the basket is then covered with leaves from the Cucuma spp. and recently, in some cases, has alternatively been lined with plastic. The making of the basket is often done in the evening before the night of the honey hunt. These days oil tins and aluminum vessels might be substituted the forest woven baskets as a means of convenience.

Honey hunters rarely have protective gear on when they go to collect honey, even when dangling from a cliff a few hundred feet in the air. The only source of protection they use is a smoker, which is a bundle of specific leaves that dangles near the honey hunter as he hangs from the rope parallel to the cliff or is held by the person balancing on top of a branch when collecting from a tree. The purpose of the smoker is to remove the bees from the comb before the honey is collected. Years ago people used to directly touch the comb with the burning bundle, ultimately killing numerous bees in that hive However, today people mostly smoke out the bees so that they abscond the nest and are left unharmed. Certain plants are selected that which are ideal for the smoker, such as: Strobilanthus spp. Cassia fistula are used in Nilambur and, Lantana, Eupatorium, Pongamia pinnata, Syzigium spp in Chamarajnagar.

Some of the other significant parts to the honey collection method include:

  • Typically, the honey hunters leave in the morning (~10 a.m. ) in order to prepare tools for the honey collection, such as: the smoker, ladder, baskets, and wooden knife.
  • During the day honey hunters will gather honey from the hives of Apis cerana, Apis florea,  and Stingless (Dammer) Bees
  • However, the honey collection with Apis dorsata is done at night time, starting at around 6:30 p.m. and lasting until about 5:30 a.m., as is dependent on the number of combs

The experience of honey hunting from the cliffs, especially when collecting honey from the temperamental Giant Rock Bee, is a really difficult task. It must be done with a group, each individual having a designated task, and often involves great trust. One such task is the role of the man at the top of the cliff who makes sure the rope holding the man dangling upon it and jabbing the hive for honey is secure. A tradition among the tribes who collect from cliffs is to always have the brother-in-law holding/keeping track of the rope of the man dangling from it. The idea is that if the man up top slacks in his job (or decides to be vindictive) and the rope falls, then the man will fall to his death, which also means the rope holder (brother-in-law) will have made his sister a widow.  A very unique tradition as a means to maintain alertness and carefulness.

Much of these methods have been maintained for generations, in conjunction to the relationship with the forest and it’s honey that they have adapted their skills too. Over time, changes have been made here and there but the ultimate task has remained steadfast. Time will tell if the overall tradition of honey hunting remains as well. Keystone Foundation is an organization that invests greatly in the multitude of Nilgiri tribes and one way of supporting these groups is by making sure the forest is accessible for them to continue their ancestral traditions, such as helping enforce the Forest Rights Act.