Amid man-eating tigers, saltwater crocodiles, pirates and pythons, the honey hunters of the Sundarbans have pursued the bounty of the giant honeybee for a thousand years. For the past few years, Mike Burgett, an Oregon State University entomologist, has accompanied the honey hunters on their dangerous harvest into the mangrove forests of southern Bangladesh.
Part of an international effort to conserve the Sundarbans, Burgett’s work has helped support sustainable livelihoods for the people who live at the edge of this tropical wildland.
Like a multi-headed Hindu deity, the Sundarbans is a place of beauty and terror, great wealth and desperate poverty. Water circulates throughout the mangroves, rearranging the mud into new forms with every rise and fall of the nine-foot tide. This is the largest delta in the world, stretching across southern India and Bangladesh at the mouth of three great rivers. Fierce cyclones surge from the Bay of Bengal and batter against the Sundarbans’ southern edge. Although much of the northern extent of the forest has been cut and drained for rice cultivation, the Sundarbans is still the largest remaining mangrove forest in the world.
At first avoided as a place of deadly tigers and malaria, now revered as a biological treasure, the core of the Sundarbans has escaped extensivedevelopment. No one lives in the mangrove forest. In an area about the size of the Willamette Valley, there are no roads, no permanent structures. The forest is a series of shifting islands made of tangled, spiky mangrove roots. Foot travel is difficult and slow, so boat travel is the chosen means of transportation.
The Sundarbans has been officially protected since 1879, when the British colonial government designated the area a forest reserve. The Bangladesh government continues nominal protection, although pressure is mounting as worldwide demand increases for the natural resources within the forest.
Even more pressure comes from the four million people who live within 20 kilometers of the forest’s northern border. The Sundarbans represents a rich natural resource in one of the poorest regions of the world. People living at its border turn to the forest for opportunities to make a living as woodcutters, fishermen or honey hunters. For hundreds of years, people have chipped away at the edges, clearing land for rice cultivation and cutting the forest for fuel, paper pulp and matches. Fish and shrimp catches have declined from over-harvests. Water has been diverted upstream to maintain agricultural lands of India and Bangladesh.
International concern focused on this last stronghold of the Bengal tiger, and in 1997 the Sundarbans was recognized by UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) as a World Heritage Site. Soon conservation money began to pour into Bangladesh.
Conservation is difficult for one of the poorest nations on earth. The Asia Development Bank offered $77 million for a project to help the Bangladesh government protect the Sundarbans and find sustainable, meaningful livelihoods for the people who live at its edge.
The project brought together scientists from around the world to assess the condition of the forest resources and the economy of the surrounding lands. Burgett, an international expert on honeybees and, in particular, on bees of Southeast Asia, assessed the sustainability of the traditional honey harvest and the health of the wild giant honeybees on which it depends.
Despite frustrations with the Bangladesh government, Burgett enjoyed working with the people in the villages, and the honey hunters in particular. In the course of three years, he joined the hunters for three seasons in the forest.
Each year the Bangladesh government issues permits to about 1,500 men for a controlled hunting season in April and May. No women take part in this traditional hunt. Each man is allowed 78 kilograms (172 pounds) of honey and 20 kilograms (44 pounds) of wax.
Bottled giant honeybee honey. Some of the honey is sold door to door by vendors who carry it in crude containers. Honey hunters can earn a third of their $280 average annual income from the two-month harvest. Photo: Mike Burgett
A giant honeybee colony. The nests are often four feet across and can weigh 100 pounds.Some 40,000 to 50,000 bees, each about an inch and a half long, live in a mature colony. Photo: Mike Burgett
The honey hunting season begins with an elaborate ceremony to bless the hunters and their boats. After speeches and fanfare, a blast of cannon fire announces the opening and the hunters paddle off. Seven to nine men fill each small wooden boat, where they will sleep, cook, eat and cache their honey for a month at a time.
"They don’t dare camp on shore for fear of tigers," says Burgett. But even on board they are not completely safe. Tigers have been known to swim out to moored boats and pull men off.
The honey hunters divide the forest into territories. During the day, they go out in pairs, traversing a tangle of mangrove spikes, mud and jungle thickets. With no roads or landmarks, it is very easy to get lost. One man stays on the boat and periodically blows a ram’s horn signal to help orient the hunters as they hack their way through the dense mangroves.
They are searching for the nests of the giant honeybee. Known to scientists as Apis dorsata, the inch-and-a-half-long creatures migrate from mountains to mangroves with the seasonal blossoming of flowers and are hunted throughout their range to some extent. But in the mangrove forest, where the trees don’t grow tall, the large, single-comb nests are within easy reach of the honey hunters.
Nests may be up to four feet across and contain as many as 50,000 bees.
"And these are ferocious bees. They have been known to kill an elephant,"says Burgett.
OSU's Mike Burgett removes giant honeybee stingers from a companion's face. Burgett suffered about 20 stings himself on this journey into the mangrove forests. Photo: Luis Chavez
OSU entomologist Mike Burgett at work back in Oregon. He's smoking out bees so he can harvest honey from an experimental hive. The goal is to identify for Oregon beekeepers optimum colony size. Photo: Lynn Ketchum
The honey hunter, barefoot and protected only by a scarf wrapped around his head, lights a torch to smoke the bees off the comb. As the bees disperse in the smoke, he quickly cuts the bare comb off with a machete, drops it into a wicker basket and retreats. A pair of hunters might locate four or five nests in a day.
As fierce as the bees can be, the real danger is the tiger.
"In every village I visited, there were stories about tiger attacks," says Burgett. "Every year, honey hunters are attacked and killed. I met guys whose grandfathers were killed by tigers, and whose fathers were killed by tigers, and they continue to go into the forest to hunt honey."
Some say that the tigers of the Sundarbans have acquired a special taste for human flesh from the bodies they find washed into the forest following floods and cyclones that periodically ravage the region. Whatever the reason, in the Sundarbans the honey hunters are themselves hunted.
Tigers are not the only danger. The mangroves are home to salt-water crocodiles and poisonous snakes. Also, there are pirates ready to rip off the meager holdings of each boat they raid. In the poorly mapped forest, there are no witnesses.
When he returns to the boat with his spoils, the honey hunter crushes the comb and drains the honey by hand, separating wax combs from fresh honey, which is poured into barrels.
There the honey sits for up to month, with no protection from the scorching heat and humidity. As a result, the hard-earned honey is partly fermented by the time the hunters return home. "It’s awful stuff, like bad honey wine," says Burgett, grimacing.
After a month in the mangroves, the boat turns for home, loaded with honey and wax. The Sundarbans honey goes through little processing between collection and sale. It is a traditional food and medicine in high demand and readily consumed by local people.
After paying back the village money-lenders who finance the boats and keep families fed while the hunters are away, the honey hunters are lucky to clear a hundred dollars each.
"Remember, this is one of the poorest nations on earth," says Burgett. "The average annual income is $280, so honey hunters stand to make a third of their year’s pay in the two-month season of honeyhunting."
Neighbors in the village of Batinakhaly, where honey hunters live, transport a man who was mauled by a tiger. The trip to a hospital by boat and taxi took 12 hours. The man died from the morning attack inside the village. Villagers eventually beat the tiger to death with clubs. Photo: Mike Burgett
The honey hunters of the Sundarbans don't sleep on the shore because tigers often hunt at night. The creatures have been known to swim out to moored boats and pull men off. Photo: Eyewire, Inc.
"As with a bee operation anywhere in the world, there can be tremendous variation from year to year, depending on the flowers," says Burgett. Despite these variations, Burgett believes that honey hunting in the Sundarbans is sustainable.
"Although data are scarce, there does not seem to be a decline inhoney yield in the Sundarbans," he says. "The giant honeybee population seems to be stable. The forest is not damaged during this process. The bees are not even injured. In fact, smart honey hunters will return to a good honey spot a month later when the bees have rebuilt the comb and they will harvest the honey a second time. This is a traditional harvest that has been going on for thousands of years. I would hate to see it stopped.
"Hunting wild honey in a dangerous forest is not for everyone," he adds. "In fact, it is only for a very few."
An additional part of Burgett’s work in the Sundarbans project was to evaluate the usefulness of hive-based beekeeping for the communities that border the forest. The OSU scientist says such beekeeping makes use of natural resources and various skills within a community, with little negative impact on the environment. It has been successfully employed as a sustainable means of income in many developing countries.
Hive-based beekeeping is very different from honey hunting, which relies on wild bees in wild places. And the two ways of life attract very different sorts of people.
Among honey hunters, the sons learn from the fathers who learned from the grandfathers. "These men are dedicated to this way of life and they are good at it. It would be a mistake to try to change them from bee hunters into bee keepers," says Burgett.
"They don’t necessarily have the skills or desire to keep bees," he adds. "But beekeeping, the sort of agricultural industry we are used to here in the U.S., may be suitable for others living on the edge of the Sundarbans. It may suit the hunter’s wife, or his neighbor or brother-in-law. It may be a very good way to supplement income, with a product that is familiar and marketable and that has very little impact on the forest ecosystem."
To help interested villagers begin beekeeping, Burgett produced a manual, written in the native Bengali language, while he was in Bangladesh. He also produced a booklet outlining methods that would increase the yield and purity of the wild honey collected from the forest.
Looking back on his work in Bangladesh, Burgett is of two minds.
"The bad news is: I’m leaving Bangladesh. The good news is: I’m leaving Bangladesh," he says, chuckling.
He contrasts the greed of the political system in Dhaka, the Bangladeshi capital, with the good works the project has been able to accomplish in the Sundarbans. "Once you are in the forest or in the villages just north of the forest, life is very different," says Burgett. "The traditions are strong, and so are the people. Wonderful and welcoming."
But watch out for the tiger.