The climate crisis affects Nepal’s honey collectors and threatens tradition | Climate crisis

Aita Prasad Gurung hangs from a cliff in Nepal, carefully manipulating a long stick with a blade at the end to cut pieces of honeycomb after Himalayan bees fled the fumes of an arson fire to drive them from their homes.

The 40-year-old man wears a white hat with a net covering his face to protect against stings as he hangs 50 meters (160 feet) from the cliff on a handmade ladder braided with bamboo threads to reach the colonies of bees.

“There is a danger of falling,” says Aita, whose community has traditionally harvested honey from hives located dozens of meters above the ground. “You have to extract honey and stay safe at the same time.”

Now, this generations-old craft is increasingly threatened, as some experts say rising temperatures caused by climate change disrupt bee growth, the availability of their food and even plant pollination.

“Last year there were about 35 hives,” says another community member, Chitra Bahadur Gurung, 49, adding: “Now we only have 15.”

For generations, the Gurung community in Taap, about 175 kilometers (110 miles) west of the capital Kathmandu, and other villages in the nearby Lamjung and Kaski districts have scoured the Himalayan cliffs in search of honey.

Earlier, villagers joined in the ritual killing of a red rooster, separating its legs and feathers as an offering to the cliff god to ask forgiveness for taking honey from the giant bees, known to scientists as Apis laboriosa.

Honeycomb extract, also known as “mad honey” for some intoxicating qualities that can cause hallucinations, sells for 2,000 Nepalese rupees ($1.50) per liter (about a quart).

Profits, divided among the group, are drying up as the number of hives dwindles, villagers say, although some make a living growing rice, corn, millet and wheat.

With less honey available to harvest each year, income from foraging has declined over the past decade, says Hem Raj Gurung, 41.

“We harvested about 600 kg (1,300 lb) of honey 10 years ago, which dropped to about 180 kg (400 lb) last year and just about 100 kg (220 lb) this year,” he says.

Some experts blame climate change as a major factor in the decline, but other contributors include deforestation, the diversion of water from streams and rivers for hydroelectric dams, and the use of pesticides.

Temperature increases in the Himalayas, home to the highest mountains on the planet, are higher than the average global rise of 1.2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, United Nations data and independent research show.

Global studies have found that a temperature rise of even 1 degree affects the growth of bees, the availability of their food and the cross-pollination of plants, says Suruchi Bhadwal of the Indian Institute of Energy and Resources.

Research shows that climate change is altering bee food chains and plant flowering, affecting populations of both around the world, adds Bhadwal, director of earth sciences and climate change at the institute.

“In terms of patterns and what we’re talking about, I think the patterns are the same in Nepal,” he says.

Climate change is affecting Himalayan cliff bees in different ways, says Surendra Raj Joshi, a resilient livelihood specialist at the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development in Kathmandu.

“Too much or too little rain, heavy or erratic rain, and long periods of drought or high temperature fluctuations put pressure on bees to maintain colony strength and honey reserves,” he says.

Changes in the life cycle of plants also cause early or late flowering and fluctuations in nectar and honeydew secretion, he says, adding: “The most visible indicator of climate change is erratic weather.”

Some experts say flooding and landslides can cause habitat loss and reduce areas where bees can forage.

Declining bee populations mean insufficient pollination of high mountain crops and wild flora, says Joshi, who is also a bee expert.

“It will also have implications for the rural economy, as honey hunting is a tradition that is becoming an important ecotourism activity,” adds Joshi. “In addition to honey and beeswax, communities will lose income from tourism.”

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