• Sara

THAILAND: Traditional Honey Hunting in Chiang Mai

Updated: May 27


I was laying on my back on the forest floor, with smoke wafting past my face. It was 11 AM and the sun was high but we were deep enough in a bamboo thicket on the side of the mountain in Chiang Mai to block out the sky. In shade, it was stifling hot. Sweating in a head-to-toe canvas bee-suit, salt water was pooling in the corners of my eyes, starting to pool in my ears. I was trying to stay still.

Looking directly up, a thin green bamboo pole no thicker than my arm was leaning against an equally thin tree trunk. Using the pole as a makeshift ladder, a traditional Thai honey hunter - dressed in rice sacks and a motorcycle helmet - just scaled the bamboo pole 60 feet in the air. I could see the bottom of the honey hunter’s brown rubber gumboots jammed in the crook of a tree. He balanced a smoking bundle of wet eucalyptus in his left hand, and tugged with his right hand on a pulley system, raising two plastic buckets to meet him in the crown of the tree.

With the smoking leaves, the honey hunter brushed at a swaying dark mass in front of him -- a nest of 50,000 Giant Asian honeybees, latched to the underside of a branch.

With each swipe of the leaves, more waxy yellow comb was visible as the air around us all filled with apis dorsata honeybees, dusted away from their home. I double checked the zip on my suit, pulling it up under my chin, tugging on calf-leather gloves with elastic pinching at my forearms.

Four more honey hunters were on the ground below the tree, craning their necks up, watching their friend in the same way that they have for the past 30 years. They each have their own job, working in tandem as a unit from one task to the next. Each is a rural farmer and forager over the age of 60, they don’t have much use for fuss or delay.

Fully in position, the airborne honey hunter dropped the smoking bundle of green leaves to his friends below, eased out a steel knife from the bamboo sheath at his hip, and reached forward to cut away the comb from the branch. I could hear the wax break apart in giant chunks and hit the bottom of the larger plastic bucket.

First big sections of brood, in stages from eggs, to larvae swimming in royal jelly, to pupae capped with papery coverings. All of that went into one bucket. Next, closer to the tree, the “honey head” was cut loose. This ribbon of golden honey and reddish pollen cells fell to the other bucket. In all, it's about three square feet of brood comb and honey.

Quickly, the hunter released the blue pulley rope and buckets down to the waiting friends, who bagged the honey and put the comb in a basket. Now with the comb, the hunters who were previously quite still started moving quickly down the hill to get away from the disoriented and irritated bees. Last week a honey hunter spent two days in the hospital from the bite of just one bee. I didn’t look back as we skidded on dry eucalyptus leaves down the hill to the forest’s edge.

At a safe distance, the leader of the group lit the thick banana leaf cigarette that’s been tucked behind his ear this whole time – a bit relieved, a bit proud.

Back at the base of the mountain, at the home of the lead hunter, the men divide the comb into neatly cut blocks. One section of honey for sale. The rest, sliced cleanly and divided equally among the hunters: the prized fatty white pupae for frying and eating.

** As a request from the Honey Hunters, they've asked not to have their faces shown. I have some amazing photos that I'm dying to post, but will refrain!

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