In Malaysia, honey hunters of the extreme

On a moonless night in the depths of the jungle in Malaysia, two men perched on the top of a tree wave a burning torch to try to move thousands of bees away from their swarm to collect the precious nectar at their own risk.

These honey hunters are part of a group of villagers who each year go on an expedition to remote areas of the rainforest in search of bee production in Tualang. , a variety of giant trees in the canopy

"This honey is rich in nutrients, it can be used as a medicine, for example cough," says Abdul Samad Ahmad, 60 years old, who has been involved in these risky adventures for more than 20 years.

Like Manuka honey in New Zealand, also prized for its medicinal properties, the Malaysian honey from Tualang is priced at around 150 ringgit ( 30 euros) the kilo, a fortune for d Poor villagers in this Southeast Asian country.

But this ancient practice of honey harvesting is threatened by both deforestation and drastically reduced numbers of bees, as well as lack of interest among the younger generations.

 For these hunters of honey, nothing like climbing on top of trees up to 75 meters high (AFP - Manan VATSYAYANA)

For these hunters of honey, nothing such as climbing at the top of trees up to 75 meters high (AFP – Manan VATSYAYANA)

For these hunters of honey, nothing better than climbing on top of trees measuring up to 75 meters top and collect this unique honey produced by bees feeding on exotic jungle flowers.

The collection season runs from February to April in the Ula Muda forest (north), when colonies of bees arrive from other parts of Asia to build natural hives on branches Tualang hes.

– Multiple bites –

 A giant Tualang tree in the Ulu Muda forest, February 11, 2018 (AFP - Manan VATSYAYANA)

A giant Tualang tree in the forest of Tualang Ulu Muda, February 11, 2018 (AFP – Manan VATSYAYANA)

On a recent expedition, Abdul Samad Ahmad and six other honey hunters dug into the rainforest before crossing a lake aboard two small boats to reach a Tualang on which they have already harvested honey at least 15 times in twenty years.

During the day, they nailed sticks in the form of stairs on the trunk to climb the tree. Then assembled roots to create a burning torch.

When the night comes, they put on several pairs of socks and t-shirts, as well as thick jackets to protect themselves from insects, before climbing on a giant tree. Equipped with a headlamp to illuminate in total darkness, they climb the tree and strike with their burning torch against the trunk shortly before reaching the swarm. Suddenly, thousands of bees fly away, attracted by the light of sparks that fall to the ground, offering hunters a rare moment to cut pieces of alveoli containing the honey and fill their bucket.

 A hunter of honey removes bees from honeycombs in Ulu Muda forest, February 12, 2018 (AFP - Manan VATSYAYANA)

Honey hunter removes bees from honeycombs in Ulu Muda forest, 12 february 2018 (AFP – Manan VATSYAYANA)

They go from tree to tree to harvest as much nectar as possible and are bitten many times but continue to collect the honey imperturbably. The work lasts all night. At dawn, they come back with 43 kilograms of honey and sting pains they say they are used to.

"If you're in the wrong place at the wrong time, the bees sting you until your body is swollen, "says one of the hunters, Zaini Abdul Hamid. Potentially deadly? Neither he nor his friends are aware of deaths related to this collection of honey, he says.

– Deforestation –

"This honey is rich in nutrients and can be used as a medicine, cough for example "(AFP – Manan VATSYAYANA)

This old and dangerous practice no longer interests younger generations in the villages: none of those who participated in recent expeditions are under 45, and some are even in their sixties.

The youngest "prefer to play with their gadgets, we ask them to come, but that does not interest them," says a honey hunter, Mohamad Khairi Mohamad Arshad, 50.

Honey production is in any case "threatened by the felling of trees and the reduction of forests" to make room for plantations and homes, says Makhdzir Mardan, a bee specialist at Putra Malaysia University. 19659002] The number of bees in the forest of Ulu Muda has declined in recent years. Mr. Mardan says he counted 128 natural hives on a single tree during an expedition to this forest in 1983 and today has only 40.

Experts have long been sounding the alarm on the decline of bee colonies around the world, mainly because of pesticides that decimate pollinator populations.

Driven into the jungle, Mr. Arshad and his honey-hunting friends are sad, there are many fewer flowers than before. "The places where bees are looking for food are disappearing," says Arshad, 50. "If there are not enough flowers, the bees will not come anymore."