Honey is life

The Kattunayakan are tribal people who live deep in the forests of the Nilgiris Biosphere Reserve in South India. They collect and sell wild honey. Today, settlers from the crowded plains and eviction from the forest reserve threaten both their land and their traditions.

Kattunayakan honey harvesters can tell from the ground whether a hive 60-80 feet up in the air has honey or not and whether it is worth the effort to climb there. Children as young as eight go along not just as spectators but to actively participate. By the time they are 12 they are full members of the team.

Photo by: Tarsh and Tariq Thekaekara

To visit the honey gatherers we travelled to Chembakolli, a small village in the Mudumalai Wildlife Sanctuary – a 321-square-kilometre park that also happens to be one of the best tiger reserves in Asia. The park is at the junction of Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Karnataka states on the northeastern slopes of the Western Ghats.

Chembakolli is a beautiful, magical place familiar to generations of British schoolchildren – for more than 15 years, eight- and nine-year-old students have had a geography lesson based on Chembakolli village. Teachers from Britain have visited the village and there is an interactive blog between English schoolchildren and Chembakolli kids (see www.chembakolli.com).

The conversation began tentatively but the stories soon came bubbling out. I asked about their ancient honey-gathering practices. Marigan, a tribal elder, began. ‘In the old days entire families – men, women, children, babies and old people – went deep into the forest in the honey season. We camped there for days carrying just a little bit of rice. Everything else, the forest gave us. But honey was our life. We used it as food, as medicine and what we could not consume we sold. People call us honey hunters. That’s not right. We are honey harvesters. We wait for the right time, when we will cause the least harm to the bees, to the babies inside. Only then do we speak to the bees and take their honey.’

But wasn’t it dangerous to venture in the jungle with old people and little children? What about animal attacks, bears and elephants? Even as I asked the question I knew it was a stupid one. Nearby, a wild elephant trumpeted loudly. A little girl, about five years old, ran whimpering to her mother: ‘the demons have come’. ‘Hush, it’s not a demon, it’s only an elephant,’ her mother soothed. Immediately the tears dried and a smile broke out. Obviously, Kattunayakans are not afraid of wild animals – not even the children. But Marigan quickly adds: ‘We do have to be careful about bears. They are nasty, sly things that will come up behind and attack you silently like a thief.’

‘We always look out for bears because they are the main competition for the honey,’ adds Babu. He is from nearby Kerala state, but has lived in Chembakolli ever since he married Mini 20 years ago. Do the bears know you’ve got honey? Another stupid question. ‘Of course they know! The air is heavy with the smell and hundreds of bees are buzzing around angrily,’ Marigan laughs. ‘Like us, that bear has been watching the hive for months, waiting for the right time. He’s been dreaming of it. And we have taken it from under his nose. No wonder he’s furious.’

‘Sometimes, when we are harvesting, the elephants come as well and wait. They love the poo-katta, the inner part of the hive. We take the honey and give them the poo-katta.’

Do the bees not sting you? Now everyone laughs. ‘Of course they do! They’ve worked so hard for months to make that honey for their children, poor things. If someone attacked our house wouldn’t we be angry? The first time you get stung you can get fever. After that – just a little pain. But what’s that compared to what we get in return from them?’

They explain the five different kinds of bees in their region. But the kombu thenu (apis dorsata) is the main one. They can harvest around 15 kilos of honey from each wild hive. Like all traditional livelihoods there is a lot of ritual.

‘When the honey season starts we first do a puja (religious ceremony) before entering the forests. If there are many hives on a single tree or if the tree is in a sacred grove, we do another special puja. It’s conducted by one of the elders who has domain over that particular part of the forest. We recall the ancestors and spirits of the forest, the clan deities. We ask their protection and blessings. We ask pardon of the bees and the forest since we are going to take their honey. When we finish harvesting, we say to the bees: ‘Thank you for giving us so much honey, please don’t be angry. Please come back here again.’

Harvesting honey from domesticated bees is a skilled task. But harvesting wild honey from hives often 80 feet and more up in the air in deep jungles is another matter altogether. A variety of skills, not least very nimble tree climbing, is essential and is often learned from childhood.

On a honey-harvesting trip the only things Kattunayakans carry with them is a knife, the various items needed for puja, rice to eat, an old tin to lower the honey from the tree and now more recently plastic jerry cans to bring back the honey. The rest they get from the forest. Tall bamboo for the ladders, sagay bark fibre for the strong rope, grasses to smoke out the bees and a bamboo blade to cut the honeycomb – metal is never used because they believe the bees won’t come back to the same tree.

Do bees always come back to the same tree? ‘Mostly. They have a special relationship with particular trees which we don’t understand,’ says Babu. ‘Perhaps they know these trees will always be there to host their hives.’

I explain that billions of bees have been decimated in the West and that bees are routinely shipped from Australia to North America. So is it sustainable to continue harvesting honey? They are stunned.

Marigan slowly replies: ‘Bees are part of our life. Would we kill our mothers and fathers? A bee is not just another insect like a fly or mosquito. It is special, all life depends on it. It pollinates everything. We would never wantonly kill a bee. We take the honey at the end when most of the babies have grown up. Very few larvae will be left at that point. We have been harvesting honey for generations. Would they return if we were harming them?’

Babu interjects: ‘The most terrible sight I’ve encountered was on a cardamom plantation in Kerala. They sprayed a weedicide. In the evening when we were going home there were dead bees everywhere. My heart twisted with pain. I felt ill.’

Everyone nods. ‘The only place you see dead bees is in the plantations when they spray pesticides. Not in the forests. Many plants they call weeds have flowers that bees need. Smoke from the tea factories bothers them. When estates clear lands for new planting the bees are disturbed, they move away. Increase in human population has meant a decrease in the bee population.’

‘We watch the bees a lot. When bees move from the flowers to the hives, they follow a particular path. We can follow them. At around ten in the morning when the sun is at a particular height, you see their path. At around two in the afternoon some bees can be clearly heard. This is the time when it’s very hot in the rocks and crevices. Around six to seven in the evening the big rock bees play with their babies, teach them to fly, when all the work is done.’

Beckoning bees

Bees are still an important part of Kattunayakan life even though they now have other sources of income. Babu points to a group of youngsters sitting nearby. ‘They were working in a factory in faraway Tirupur but when the honey season started they told their boss someone was ill and came running home. No matter where we are, we can’t stay away. The bees beckon us. The honey season is ancient; it’s in our blood. Every year we have our kaavu (sacred grove) festival when we remember our ancestors and all the spirits. All the costs must be met with honey money. We give honey to the sick, to babies. For us honey eating is a serious, solemn thing. We don’t talk when we eat honey.’

‘Bees are part of our life... a bee is not just another insect like a fly or mosquito. It is special, all life depends on it...'

A sadness overtakes Marigan. ‘Even our little children know about the bees. From eight years on they go with the older boys to collect honey. The bees sting them. But they know it’s part of our life. We have lived with the bees since the days when our ancestors walked these forests, when time began. But for the last few decades, everyone is afraid because the forest guards harass us.’

The Mudumalai Wildlife Sanctuary is policed by forest guards, some of whom are hostile to honey gatherers and believe they should be evicted. The Kattunayakans, with other tribes, have been fighting eviction and encroachment for more than two decades. They recently formed the Adivasi Munnetra Sangam (AMS), a union to fight for their rights (see www.adivasi.net).

‘We can be chased, our boys arrested, even beaten up if the forest guard is a bully,’ continues Marigan. ‘With the new Forest Rights Act things have improved, changed a bit. But we are still afraid.’

Anthropologists have extolled indigenous knowledge but it’s only recently that the world has begun to acknowledge what we can learn from them. The Kattunayakans – illiterate, living in their jungle homes, some still in caves – recognize what many of us do not. That it’s a sacrilege to kill a bee; that our very survival may depend on the smallest of nature’s creatures.

Mari Marcel Thekaekara is a regular NI contributor. She and her husband Stan live in the Nilgiris Biosphere Reserve in Tamil Nadu, India.

The story in pictures...

First a tree with beehives is located. Bees tend to make their hives on the same tree year after year.

All Photos by Tarsh and Tariq Thekaekara

The Kattunayakans (also know as the honey hunters) can tell from the ground whether a hive 60-80 feet up in the air has honey or not and whether it is worth the effort climbing up there. They work in teams – each team has its own range or territory which is respected by all. The group then sets out close to dusk. They harvest the honey only when it is dark – otherwise the bees are much too aggressive. They carry with them nothing more than a knife, a few sacred items for their puja, a tin to lower the honey from the tree and big cans to carry the honey home.

The first step is to get two important things from the forest – ‘rope’ which is made from the bark of a tree and a bamboo ladder. To get a single bamboo from a thicket is not easy.

When they reach the top they swing from the vine and jump on top of a bamboo. They then start cutting the branches working downwards and when they have freed about 20-30 ft of bamboo it is cut down and dropped.

The ladder is then prepared – a single bamboo. The top bit is made into a hook so it can be hooked onto branches for the climb.

(This photo and next) The spirits are then invoked to protect them from the bees and to ask that the bees should not be too angry with them for taking away the honey. They also pray that bears and elephants should not come and attack them since both these animals are attracted by the smell of honey.

The spirits are invoked...

Then they collect leaves and dry grass, which are bundled together. This will be lit to create the smoke needed to chase away the bees.

The climb begins. When they reach the top of the ladder, it is pulled up behind them and then hooked on to next higher branch. The ladder is also placed sideways and like a trapeze artist with no net they walk across it 60-80 ft up in the air to cross from one branch to another. After this we have not been able to photograph. By now it is dark. Even if we could climb we are not sure how the bees would react to a flash!

Children as young as eight go along not just as spectators but to actively participate. By the time they are 12 they are full members of the team.