Three hundred feet in the air, Mauli Dhan dangles on a bamboo rope ladder, surveying the section of granite he must climb to reach his goal: a pulsing mass of thousands of Himalayan giant honeybees. They carpet a crescent-shaped hive stretching almost six feet below a granite overhang. The bees are guarding gallons of a sticky, reddish fluid known as mad honey, which, thanks to its hallucinogenic properties, sells on Asian black markets for $60 to $80 a pound—roughly six times the price of regular Nepali honey.
Himalayan honeybees make several types of honey depending on the season and the elevation of the flowers that produce the nectar they eat. The psychotropic effects of the spring honey result from toxins found in the flowers of massive rhododendron trees, whose bright pink, red, and white blossoms bloom each March and April on north-facing hillsides throughout the Hongu Valley. The Kulung people of eastern Nepal have used the honey for centuries as a cough syrup and an antiseptic, and the beeswax has found its way into workshops in the alleys of Kathmandu, where it is used to cast bronze statues of gods and goddesses.
For Mauli, honey hunting is the only way to earn the cash he needs to buy the few staples he can’t produce himself, including salt and cooking oil. But no matter how important the money is to him and to others in his village far below, Mauli believes it is time to stop doing this. At 57 he is too old to be attempting this dangerous, seasonal honey harvest. His arms grow tired as the ladder swings in space. Bees buzz around him, stinging him on his face, neck, hands, bare feet, and through his clothes.