Eat, Eat; Careful – There May Be a Bee in the Honey

Bass, Audra_Headshot
Audra Bass

On the Ground in India: Perspectives from American India Foundation’s Clinton Fellows

Friday evening it was official that I was going to go on the trek! I accompanied Nandan (friend and mentor) and his friends who worked as trek leaders in the Himalayas and came to south to become acquainted with the forests of the Nilgiris, in hopes to one day lead treks there. Beyond the fact that I was thrilled to be going on a hike in the Nilgiris Biosphere Reserve (I am a fanatic for ANYTHING outdoors) this would be an ideal opportunity to take all the information I had researched and experience in real life. My work? – It’s called the Honey Portal Project. Have you ever heard of men who scale massive trees with their bare feet and an axe for leverage? Or the men who harness vines from the forest, attach the rope on a tree above a cliff, then dangle at the side of the cliff face while hundreds of feet in the air, all while balancing a set of tools also derived from the forest?

And what are they after, you wonder? Wild honey! These people are honey hunters. For generations, these indigenous groups have based their lives off the forest, from sustenance of NTFPs (non-timber forest products) to the spiritual connection between the people and the land. Honey hunting encompasses both of these, being a practice that gathers food/medicine and a profit for the community but is also strongly interwoven into the spiritual beliefs of the people. The tradition of honey hunting is ancient in India as evidenced by rock art found in Uttar Pradesh that is 6000 years old!

Our first visit was at a Kurumba village called Vellericombei. As with most parts of the Nilgiris Biosphere Reserve (NBR), there is now a balance, and also often time’s conflict, between modernization/economic gain and holding onto traditions. Decades ago the hills and mountains were covered in Shola forests, dense in both vegetation and fauna. Nowadays the forests remain in patches as tea plantations commandeer the land and continue to infringe upon the forests. In order to get to the village we had to walk past thousands of bushy tea fronds neatly aligned from the edge of the road to the edge of the forest. Soon the tea bushes started to make way for the forest trees and village houses here and there started to emerge. When you go further into the village, you see cultivated coffee trees meshed within the thin forest. Once you hike for a bit of time further towards the cliff faces, then do plantations melt away and the forest becomes thick and wild. The encroachment is gradual and the tribes are caught in between.

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Leaving the tea fields and slowing venturing into the thickening forest.

My project at Keystone requires that I learn and understand these conflict of interests taking place in the NBR. For the Honey Portal Project I am reading and learning as much information possible about honeybees, honey, conservation/research, and the Adivasis of the NBR to eventually (actually quite soon!) make a website this incredible information. So few, even in the surrounding area, know about these factors and how they are related to one another. For instance, the fact that the Adivasis rely on the honeybees who rely on the existence of large trees and diversity of plants in extensive forests, which in turn relies on the state of the climate. There are numerous details from numerous directions and connections that I have to understand, which again is the reason that the trek to the villages was so beneficial. Alright, small explanatory diversion and now back to the adventure (yes, which is a part of my job):

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Krishna showing his artistic pieces.

We paused at the home of Krishna, the artist of the village. He makes paint from the sap of the trees (note to self: find out which tree!) and makes designs on canvases or stamped paper. These designs are stories and folklore from the past such as how the elephant came to be and the rituals for when a girl comes of age. His work was inspired by the rock art (that which we were trekking to). It is believed by the Kurumbas that those who made the rock art were the original ancestors of the Kurumba tribe.

Our trek then plunged us deep into the forest, and trackers/”protectors from the elephants” had to machete the path most of the way. We didn’t see elephants that day but every so often someone noticed their large dung mass on the trail. They were heard trumpeting in the valley below just a few hours later. It was long trek, often with dense vegetation, and warm but not too tough. The best moments were pausing up a slope, turning around, and seeing the landscape of the mountain you just came from.

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Tree sap made into a paint and paintings in the unique Kurumba style.
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Ancient rock art #1.
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Ancient rock art #2.

The final destination and goal was achieved at the cliff face, strewn with colors of burnt umber and metallic reds, and on which were painted the stories of someone’s ancestors (again, Kurumbas believe to be themselves). The story itself was hard to make out but the figures of artistry were still distinct. And by great chance, there laying against the cliff face adjacent to the rock art, was a bamboo ladder, a crucial tool for honey hunting. This cliff face was short enough so that a rope ladder tied to a tree atop the cliff does not have to be employed but instead the Kurumbas can simply lay the bamboo ladder against the rock face and climb up to the honeybees. There were no hives or honeybees present given that the honey hunting season is not until late April/early May (goes until about July) since the honey bees migrate to plains around the fall period.

We passed the time here with the passing clouds in deep reflection interspersed with bouts of laughter and even small philosophical discussion. We left that sacred place empty, tired, and full of infinite experience. Our next visit would be later in the evening to the Toda village called Bikkapathy Mund.

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Bamboo ladder in preparation for honey hunting in the spring.

After scarfing down vendor food around 5 (we missed lunch) and then quick showers back at home, we jumped into Gali’s little red car (I’ve named Big Red) and wound our way up the curvy road of several mountains. All somehow on an empty tank of gas … Gali is full of surprises. We made it to a town’s edge and met up with Cutana – a prominent member of this Toda village who is a part of the conservation team at Keystone. The Todas are another tribe of the NBR, and are strikingly distinct in both features and practices. They live on the high plateaus of the NBR where the Shola forests give way to small patches of plains. This enables the pastoralist traditions of the Todas, who raise and keep large buffalo, but never for meat. The Todas are staunchly vegetarian and herding the buffalo serves the purpose of having milk but more so is the essence of their spiritual connection to the forest. Beyond the reverential caring for their buffalo, they also show deference for the land such as by walking barefoot. It is holy ground and even some large rocks will not be walked upon out of respect.

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Indicator of border between forest and Toda village.

Cutan walked with us a while up the trail towards his village and then rode his motorbike the rest of the way. He does this every day when he comes to work for Keystone, riding an hour plus in and an hour plus back. Before this he rose at the crack of dawn to walk down to the nearest town, then take a local bus or two into Kotagiri, and finally walk up the hill to work and then take the same such way back home. The amount of time and effort he put into his job and presence at Keystone while also being very much a member of his tribe astounded me.

The walk was uphill, shrouded in thick forest, once you passed the tea valley, and it was completely dark – only headlamps shown our path. We knew tigers roamed this area but we did not see one. However, we did hear the mad screech of a monkey and Cutan biked back quickly to us out of fear and concern for us – turns out that screech meant a tiger was on the prowl. The Toda village was atop the mountain. You came to a grassy, open patch and stone structures mark the boundary of the forest and the beginning of the village. There is an immediate sense of calm and serenity here. The small Toda huts (traditional) and homes (more modern cement structures) have molded so well in to the ravine and forest.

No matter the time of day, the Todas show the upmost hospitality for guests so we sat outside and waited as they made coffee. A few of the buffalo roamed about nearby while the dozens others lay clustered in the pen, their threatening horns silhouetted by the moon lit night. Buffalo will charge a stranger yet be submissive and gentle to the Toda. They merely have to speak with the buffalo and the very sound of the Toda’s voice calms these animals or makes them move. Whether or not you believe in spiritual connection between two living beings, there was something, just something… more… deeper.

Before bunkering down, Cutana’s wife gave us dinner (well 2nd dinner… it is not possible to say no to the abundance of food they made for us) and ample glasses of buttermilk, straight from the buffalo roaming outside. Again such a strong connection between the people and the land. We woke early the next morning and set off for another trek. This one was gentle and mainly spent on top of a ridge overlooking the valley below and other mountains in the distance. More a reflective time, eye level with the clouds, and enjoying a sighting of sambar or gaur here and there. On the way back Cutan showed me one of the trees with the small hollow that also was blocked by a small rock. This was a hive of Apis Cerana (The Asian Honeybee) and it was already being tended and watched by one of the Todas! How do I know? The Asian Honeybee is the only honeybee in the NBR that makes a cluster of hives, as opposed to just one, and is known for tucking its hives into a tree cavity, only to be spotted by an observant Toda. Once found a Toda person will plug the tree to keep unwanted guests (ex: sloth bears) from destroying the hive. The Todas then harvest the wild honey in the most conservation savvy way – no use of fire, they blow gently into the hollow to move the bees in order to grab, barehanded, only the comb(s) with the honey leaving the brood untouched. A few stings are inevitable but accepted for the sake of this practice.

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Guddu (trekking friend) resting after a morning hike. Kids in the village just waking up for the day.
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Prudhvi/ Gali (trek leader) looking at the valley below.

Most of my time at work is spent at the computer reading article upon book upon article or helping with another small project (i.e. Newsletter) or contributing written pieces for someone else’s project. As the content is being finalized and the website is soon underway, I plan and hope to go out more in the field. It’s through personal accounts and seeing their lives outside of a book or documentary that I truly came to appreciate more the project I am doing. And I want to bring their anecdotes even more into the many aspects of this project by collecting their stories and memories of honey hunting so that anyone outside these old intimate communities can put a face to such an incredible life. I was so honored to spend the trek with my fellow companions and to be able to venture into these people’s homes and lives. I hope to return very, very soon!

P.S. Please enjoy below a poem of praise and joy after a successful honey hunt:

Oh My Dear Woman, Mother, Sister And Everybody Else
Come And Join In The Feast
Let Us Sing And Dance
We Have Collected Honey Successfully
Eat How Sweet, The Bee God Gives Us
Let Us Sing And Dance
We Have Not Used Iron Or Any Other Metal To Cut The Comb
Bee God Will Not Be Angry
Next Year Also They Will Give Honey To Us
Eat, Eat; Careful – There May Be A Bee In The Honey

Poem from “Honey Trails in the Blue Mountains” p.109. A tribute to the forest spirit Kath Manasa.


Nath, Snehlata, Pratim Roy, Mathew John, and Kunal Sharma. Honey Trails In The Blue Mountains: Ecology, People And Livelihood In The Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve, India. Kotagiri: Keystone Foundation, 2007. Print.

About the Author
Originally from Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Audra Bass graduated from Duke University with a Bachelor of Science degree in Biology. Her specific field interests are the inter-connection between the environment, public health, and sustainable livelihoods. Audra wants to combine her passion for environmental justice, activism for local populations, and cultural appreciation during this fellowship, and hopes to gain insight to apply these passions even more so her work. She has traveled around the world, from Madagascar to the Amazon, performing jobs from primate fieldwork to environmental education with local schools.

AIF’s William J. Clinton Fellowship for Service in India builds the next generation of leaders committed to lasting change for underprivileged communities across India, while strengthening the civil sector landscape to be more efficient and effective.