For over 50 years, honey hunters hidden in mountain belts of South India have largely escaped the extreme modernization in the beekeeping industry. Now a growing sector of eco and health-conscious consumers are rediscovering these people and the incredible properties of raw forest honey.

The rolling hills of Kodaikanal, in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, India, throw deep shadows over the Valley of Elephants. Tropical flowers, waking up to a new spring, stretch their long stems to catch glimpses of the sun as it filters through jungle foliage. As they have done for thousands of years, the Palaiyar, an Adivasi (indigenous) people, are preparing for the honey hunting season.

In the rice paddies stretching below this mountainous fortress, professional beekeepers have dominated the honey industry. Now, the tide is beginning to turn. A new appreciation is growing for the medicinal value and unrefined taste of raw forest honey.

It’s not only in Europe where Indian honey has a tainted reputation. In December, India’s household honey brand names, such as Hitkari, Dabur, Patanjali, and Zandu, failed industry-standard purity tests. These products are commonly available in grocery stores and pharmacies across the country.

Honey impurities are often caused by antibiotics and chemicals aggressively used in apiculture to resist bacterial growth in bee colonies. In other cases, honey is completely replaced by artificially-flavored sugar syrup. As a result, many urban Indians are turning toward raw forest honey to meet their need for quality. This creates opportunities and market access for marginalized communities and small-scale businesses. Although spurred on by the rise in eco-conscious consumerism, it also puts pressure on this finite resource.

Traditional Sources

For millennia, raw forest honey in India was purported to have incredible health properties but could also have poisonous and possibly life-threatening side effects. Ancient Indian medical texts, such as the c2000-year-old Charak Samhita, an eight-book foundational text on Ayurveda, purport honey bees to be forest animals. They refer to forest-dwelling humans as the most knowledgeable about honey and honey bees. This indicates that in ancient India, learned medical practitioners lived closely with indigenous forest honey hunters.

However, modern commercial practices and the introduction of a high-yielding European honey bee species (Apis mellifera) to meet growing demand have largely excluded forest dwellers from the honey industry. Apart from large-scale farmers supplying dubious brand names, there are “gypsy bee-keepers”. They are people who travel the country offering their services and helping farmers kick-start their beekeeping industry.

City Vs. Country

Similarly, large-scale farmers each year transport honey bees thousands of miles to aid in monoculture cross-pollination. Raw forest honey is sometimes sold at the nearest road intersection or railway station. It comes freshly plucked, or poached, from deep forest trees, sold to the highest bidder before the Forestry Department arrives.

Another unlikely source of raw honey is from the cities themselves! Overhangs of buildings, high above the din of traffic and human noise, are perfect spots for undisturbed bee hives. Although these can’t be called forest honey, they are certainly raw with the nectar coming from a multitude of flowers found within the range of the city.

In a tropical lush country like India, at the slight hint of rains and due to the high humidity, vegetation flourishes. Regardless if they’re in nooks and crannies on streets, sidewalks, or the edges of buildings. When these hives grow extremely large and the bees begin to interfere with the residents’ lives, and also if they have absconded, bee handlers from the villages are invited in to break the hives. They then extract the honey, which is sold directly on the streets.

Follow The Bee

In this complicated medley of honey collection, one start-up, Malaivalmakkal, which means People of the Hills, is reviving ancient Adivasi knowledge. The goal is to support sustainable raw forest honey collection.

“When Adivasi people are looking for honey they follow the bee,” says Malaivalmakkal founder Vaibhav Vaidya. “The way they collect the honey is special. They leave enough behind for the hive to regenerate. There is already an agreed route in the forest, so each person will always go to the same individual hive.” 

This applies to Rock Bee hives that hang like rounded stalactites from rock shelters and overhangs. It is the same for hard-to-find Dammer Bee honey, valued for its medicinal properties since antiquity.

In the tropical jungle of the Kodaikanal mountains, finding forest honey is a difficult task. You wade through stubborn overgrown vegetation, peel off leeches from your ankles and look out for temperamental elephants and bison. 

“As long as you have the knowledge of it you can find it but it is almost an embodied knowledge – learned from childhood – otherwise how can you see a small dot (entrance to Dammer Bee hive) like that?” Vaibhav explains. He often joins the Adivasi on collection trips, leaving before sunrise and sometimes returning by darkness, but he leaves the collecting process to the indigenous people. Afterward, Vaibhav classifies the honey based on the bee species, taste, time collected, and the person who collected it.

Written By Sujata Guha and Lavrenty Repin

Lavrenty is a professional writer with over 10 years of experience living and writing in Namibia, South Africa, India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Russia. Topics of interest include indigenous knowledge (esp. San, Santhal, Munda, Oraon, Hu communities), environmental studies, performance art, and all other art practices, colonial and postcolonial research, rock art, geography/geology, literature, and ancient history in general. B.A (hon.) in English literature, Ancient Indian History and Philosophy (Western and Eastern). He is the Co-founder of HiHiRi PiPiRi NPO, a musician, filmmaker, dog trainer, and extreme hiker. Follow his work at HIJRAH.