Stout hearts and steady hands following age-old rituals are required to successfully collect the sweet combs of the honey bee.
THINK of it as chewing gum, I was advised. Dutifully, I put the honeycomb in my mouth and chewed. The spurt of gold liquid was the sweetest I had tasted in my life. It was sweeter for the fact that I had just witnessed its harvesting – the first of the season – a painstaking, brave and fascinating feat based on age-old knowledge, techniques and rituals.
I looked up again to the top of the tualang tree from which the comb had been taken. Still perched atop a branch about 40m above me were the two traditional honey hunters whose spoils we were enjoying. Up there in the dark, Nizam Mustapha, 28, and Shukor Ayub, 27, were in the company of about two million bees, give or take several thousand.
The honey hunters have to fashion makeshift ladders out of saplings to reach the honeycombs high up in the trees. Picture courtesy of PAUL MIROCHA
It does make one wonder who these honey-hunters are and why they do what they do. On this moonless night in the beautiful forest of Tasik Pedu in Kedah, Nizam and Shukor seemed cloaked in a mysterious aura, indistinguishable as they were from the tree and the bees.
As they climbed up the mighty trunk, patiently fashioning a new ladder out of saplings, did they become one with the tree? As they inched towards the glorious dome of stars, did some heavenly force protect them from stings and harm?
It is the traditional honey hunters who know how much to harvest so that the bees will keep coming back
PROF MAKHDZIR MARDAN
A cheerful shout from behind me shook me out of my reverie. It was Salleh Mohammed Noor, checking on their progress. Fondly known as Pak Teh, this master honey hunter of 40 years is the young men's grandfather. It was from him that they had learned their ambil lebah honey-hunting trade.
That trade was originally a communal pastime among rural folk all over Peninsular Malaysia, said Datuk Dr Makhdzir Mardan, 54, professor of apiculture and pollination biology at Universiti Putra Malaysia. He is one of Malaysia’s foremost bee experts and has researched the Tasik Pedu bees, bee trees and honey hunters since 1983.
“In the old days, honey had no economic value and honey-hunting was a form of entertainment. After the harvest, the honey was shared with everyone,” he said.
From a 1989 study of 20 groups of honey hunters throughout the Peninsula, Prof Makhdzir identified two categories of honey hunters. The traditional tualang honey gatherers work in groups and gather honey from the tallest trees in the rainforest (emergents or Tualang, which comprise different species); they also follow old traditions and taboos.
Meanwhile, Camuk honey gatherers work alone or in pairs to gather honey from the lower, accessible parts of the forest, using whatever methods that work for them, which might not always be sustainable.
Through the years, Prof Makhdzir has seen the gradual decline of the first group, which is why he thinks people like Pak Teh are exceptional and should be celebrated.
“I’ve met many honey hunters and he is the most experienced traditional tualang honey-hunter among them – a real si fu. Because he retains and follows the old practices faithfully and with integrity, he epitomises this traditional, sustainable culture of tualang honey-hunting, which is disappearing.
The combs in a cowhide bucket. Note the traditional bone knife attached to the rim (top of picture). Picture by WONG SIEW LYN.
“More and more, modern honey hunters only do it for the money; they don’t care about the bees or the forest, and they can be very destructive.”
Today, honey hunting has become an indelible part of rural culture, a once-a-year activity when the giant honey bees (Apis dorsata) fly to Pedu to nest for three to four months.
“As honey became valuable, other people wanted to become honey hunters, but they used modern methods ... it is the traditional honey hunters who know the threshold of how, and how much to harvest, so that the bees will keep coming back in the same numbers,” explained Prof Makhdzir.
For instance, the honey hunting method employed by Pak Teh and his clan is only done on moonless nights so that, once dispersed, the bees cannot make their way back to their nests to sting the honey-hunters. That limits the number of trees that can be harvested by one team in one season.
The method used to disperse the bees and collect the honey is a combination of traditional knowledge and belief systems. Upon reaching a comb, the honey-hunter must stroke it with a torch of liana roots to urge the bees to leave.
As the thousands of angry insects leave the colony, the honey hunter taps the torch so that glowing embers flow down to the ground. Believing the embers to be the threat, the bees chase them to the dark forest floor. Once there, the bees cannot make their way to the nest until it is light.
At the same time, other honey hunters on the forest floor cajole the bees to descend. “Turun Hitam Manis, turun dengan cahaya bintang, turun dengan lemah-lembutnya,” goes the full refrain. (Come down, Hitam Manis, come down with the light of the stars, come down with gentleness.)
The taboo of never referring directly to the bees and their honey is strictly followed to ensure the honey hunting proceeds safely. Hence the use of poetic euphemisms as “Hitam Manis” for the bees and “cahaya bintang” for the embers.
Pak Teh and his wife bottling honey which they will sell at RM100 per bottle. Picture courtesy of PAUL MIROCHA
As the bright red embers flutter that great distance to the ground, they do, in fact, resemble delicate shooting stars.
Once the bees leave the comb, the honey hunter cuts it with a knife made of bone. He then places the comb in a cowhide bucket and lowers it to the ground. Metal is never used. Two sections of the honey-dripped comb are carefully wrapped in banana leaves and left in another part of the forest. Prof Makhdzir thinks it might be to appease wildlife competitors for the honey. However, there is no denying the spiritual dimensions of the honey-hunt, about which the honey hunters remain smilingly elliptical to me.
Perhaps it has to do with the fact that many of the taboos and beliefs are tied to a myth of a palace maiden, Hitam Manis, who fell in love with the sultan’s son. Upon hearing this, the sultan banished her to the forest. As she fled with her friends, she was speared by a metal weapon.
However, she and her friends did not die but turned into bees instead. Hitam Manis declared, though, that if metal ever touched them again, they would retaliate with death.
The honey hunters admitted that they would not risk breaking these taboos. More prosaically though, Pak Teh does appreciate the economic value of the honey.
“We charge RM100 a bottle for our honey. We can get 200-300 bottles a year.”
However, they never sell all of the honey, for the delicacy is one in which they all delight. “We eat it with bread, rice and pulut (sticky rice) ... if you spread it on chicken and roast the chicken, you will not be able to get enough of it!”
Pak Teh’s grandsons Nizam (left) and Shukor are proud to continue the tualang way of honey gathering. - Picture by WONG SIEW LYN.
The honey hunt is also an obsession for Pak Teh. “When the bees arrive, I completely forget about home.”
Honey hunting makes him happy, he says. When asked about being stung, he said that was inevitable, sometimes 50 to 60 times in a night, but added, “The more they sting, the more I want to do it!”
He claimed the stings do not affect him.
This year though, Pak Teh was not well and did not climb the tualang tree for the first harvest. I felt a pang watching the panting octogenarian negotiate the steep hill to this honey hunting site. However, it did not take him long to revert to his jocular self, but it did enforce the fragility of this traditional form of honey hunting.
Pak Teh is lucky that at least two grandsons have taken over. But it is tough and dangerous work. The fashioning of the ladder alone took Nizam and Shukor four hours, aided by a three-person support crew at ground level. The operation was smooth, with everyone knowing exactly what to do. Occasionally, the watchful men below would shout up advice to the tree-climbers. Banter was equally frequent.
After the hunt, the group squatted around oil lamps, enjoying bread dipped in the golden honey. The atmosphere was relaxed and jovial, as it had been all night.
Nizam said he felt happy to have inherited this tradition. He is glad to be able to take a month off from his job as a bus driver this year for the honey hunt: “It’s a nice change from the city and it’s great to be in the forest.”
Basking in the warmth of the camaraderie, with memories of the shower of glowing embers and the sweet taste of the honey, I decided that the reasons that made honey hunters do what they do were complex. Some mysteries are best left unexplored.