Malaysia’s honey hunters defy angry bees to harvest treetop treasure

On a moonless night deep in the Malaysian rainforest, two men perched precariously on high branches use a smoking torch to draw thousands of bees from a treetop hive, braving the angry swarm to collect their prized honey.

The honey hunters, as they are known, are rag-tag groups of villagers who head to remote corners of the jungle every year in search of the rare nectar, hidden in towering tualang trees.

“This is the real thing,” said Abdul Samad Ahmad, 60, who has been harvesting honey in this way for more than 20 years.

“There’s a lot of nutrition in this honey. You can make it into medicine, for your cough or cold.”

Like New Zealand’s manuka honey, also hailed for its supposed medicinal qualities, Malaysian tualang honey is expensive, fetching 150 ringgit ($38) a kilo—a huge amount for people from poor, rural communities.

But the generations-old practice faces myriad threats, from environmental destruction and falling bee numbers to a lack of interest among the young.

The die-hard hunters remain optimistic—for them, there is no greater buzz than climbing trees 250 feet (75 meters) tall to gather honey made by bees gorged on sweet nectar from exotic jungle flowers.

‘Sting until your body is swollen’

The honey-collecting season in northern Malaysia’s Greater Ulu Muda forest runs from February to April, when giant honey bees arrive from other parts of Asia to make their hives in the trees that stretch high above the rainforest canopy.

On a recent trip, Abdul Samad and six others travelled far into the forest, boarding two small boats and sailing across a lake to reach a tualang. They nailed branches up its trunk a few feet apart to create a makeshift ladder, replacing old ones from the previous year.

As night fell, after layering up and donning thick jackets, the group lit vine roots twisted together to create a smoking torch.

They clambered up the tree, hitting the torch against the trunk as they approached a hive. A flood of embers showered below, and a team member called out to the bees: “Come down, black sweet, come down.”

A swarm of bees rushed out, chasing the sparks of light—granting the hunters precious moments to cut through the hive and fill a bucket with chunks of honeycomb.

The men worked through the night, slowly moving around the tree’s many hives and only stopping just before dawn, having collected 43 kilograms (94 pounds) of honey.

The hunters were stung numerous times but continued working, insisting they are used to the pain.

One of the group, Zaini Abdul Hamid, said he and his fellow hunters are not aware of any deaths resulting from the risky pastime, “but if you’re in the wrong place, at the wrong time, the bees will sting you until your body is swollen.”

Vanishing forests

Demand for tualang honey exceeds its limited supply, and the bounty is split equally among the group, who sell it in their village or to dealers from out of town.

None of those on the recent expedition were younger than 45, with some in their 60s, and they said younger people from their villages have no interest in taking up honey-hunting.

“They’re not brave,” said Mohamad Khairi Mohamad Arshad, while Zaini lamented that the younger generation “prefer to play with their gadgets—we asked them to come, but they’re not interested”.

The hunters said it was common to see four to five groups from a single village harvesting from tualang trees in the 1960s, but these days there are far fewer.

The number of bees in the Ulu Muda forest also appears to have fallen in recent years, with heavy logging regularly reported and some blaming the destruction of their natural habitat.

The problem may also be global. Experts have long been sounding the alarm about declining honey bee populations worldwide, blaming climate change and disease as well as habitat destruction.

No comprehensive studies have been done on bee populations in Ulu Muda, but Makhdzir Mardan, a bee expert from Universiti Putra Malaysia, said that on an expedition into the forest in 1983 he had spotted 128 hives on a tree, while now you could expect to find 40 at most.

As they trekked deeper into the jungle, the honey hunters mourned the loss of the bees’ habitat, particularly the flowers they feed on.

“The places where the bees look for food are disappearing,” said Mohamad Khairi Mohamad Arshad, 50.

“If there aren’t a lot of flowers, then the bees will not come.”

Dead rats in jars of formaldehyde decorated the corridors of the small clinic. Inside the isolation ward, the temperature was stifling at above 40°C (104°F) degrees.

Kevin Ousman, who specializes in combating viral risks at the World Health Organization, spends his days reminding people of basic protection.

“Change your gloves!” Ousmane orders. “Throw away this water! Don’t put this bag on the floor.”

In front of the hospital, surgical gloves and syringes spill out of the trash bins onto the grass.

“Given the situation we’re living here, we are going right down to the basics,” Ousmane tells AFP as doctors come and go clad from head to toe in protective suits.

Family care

A striking sight is that of relatives trying to care for their loved ones. Many come wearing just flip-flops and a simple facemask when they visit a patient in the isolation ward.

“It’s a tradition in Africa for families to take care of their sick,” a WHO employee remarks. “But we have to put a stop to that, it’s much too risky.”

Wilson Oherein had heard only vaguely of Lassa fever before his wife contracted the disease, to die of it a few days ago.

Their three-year-old daughter was also contaminated by Lassa fever and she was being cared for in the isolation ward at Irrua.

Oherein usually spends his days at his daughter’s bedside and feeds her. He also takes her soiled garments and washes them in a bucket. But this afternoon, he is resting in a half-finished building behind the hospital, with other family members of patients.

He is lying, exhausted, on a mat on the floor. “I will be fine,” he tries to convince himself, his forehead beaded with sweat. “I’m just anxious for my daughter and the mourning of my wife. It knocks me down.” 

Topics: Honey , Malaysia , Honey Bee , WHO , World Health Organization , Greater Ulu Muda ,
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