THE BEE PHOTOGRAPHER

Éric Tourneret

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Nepal

The honey hunt of the Tiger-men

 

bees © Éric Tourneret

 

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In the foothills of the Himalayas, the various species of rhododendron flower from early April to late June, between 6,000 and 19,000 feet.

bees © Éric Tourneret

 

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An Apis Laboriosa, the largest social bee in the world, collects propolis on a rhododendron bloom.

bees © Éric Tourneret

 

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A woman prepares her basket to transport firewood. Few rhododendron forests are protected and an increasing population means more trees are felled each year.

bees © Éric Tourneret

 

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The bamboo houses of the Bung valley dot the terraced farmland, where potatoes, corn, and barley are grown.

bees © Éric Tourneret

 

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The Rai are tireless porters. Their large baskets of braided bamboo accumulate loads of over 200 pounds.

bees © Éric Tourneret

 

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At an early age, children begin to participate in gathering the day’s supplies by collecting young nettles and aromatic herbs on the hillsides.

bees © Éric Tourneret

 

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The more luxurious houses are built of whitewashed rock, topped with a roof of braided bamboo. All materials are carried by the Rai on their backs.

bees © Éric Tourneret

 

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A field bee approaches a tree in bloom. The Apis Laboriosa is the largest pollinator of mountain flora. It has been seen at an altitude of 13,500 feet.

bees © Éric Tourneret

 

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This woman shaman has taken over the duties of the “mop,” her husband, now too old to officiate. The sacred drum helps her achieve a trance state to communicate with the spirit world.

bees © Éric Tourneret

 

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Approaching the cliff on foot traverses a jungle of bamboo and rhododendron. Thirteen men take part in the harvest.

bees © Éric Tourneret

 

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A new bamboo ladder was braided this year. To make it more flexible, the fiber is soaked in one of the many streams that irrigate the jungle.

bees © Éric Tourneret

 

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The closer one draws to the cliff, the steeper the slope. The coming monsoon makes for luxuriant vegetation.

bees © Éric Tourneret

 

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The long, braided-bamboo ladder will soon be hoisted to the top of the cliff. It measures well over 320 feet in length.

bees © Éric Tourneret

 

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The Apis Laboriosa, giant bee of the Himalayas, builds its nests under the overhanging rock of cliff faces, near a river. The combs can reach five feet in diameter.

bees © Éric Tourneret

 

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Bolo Kesher is the Perengge, the man who harvests the honey. He is a respected and influential person in his community, not only for his role in the honey hunt, but for his knowledge of the spirit world. He is deferentially addressed as “guru,” meaning “he who knows.”

bees © Éric Tourneret

 

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The bamboo ladder is to be hoisted up. Much farther off, Shimbu, the son of the Perengge, has selected an observation post from which he will be able to give instructions to the assistants at the top of the cliff, who must move the harvest basket without being able to see it.

bees © Éric Tourneret

 

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The men’s improvised protection means that they pay a price for the harvest in the form of puffy faces and swollen lips…

bees © Éric Tourneret

 

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The fire is lit, setting off a massive attack by the swarms. Bolo Kesher chants an ancient prayer, one passed down from generation to generation, to the guardian spirit of the cliff.

bees © Éric Tourneret

 

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The Perengge has donned the lukspa, the ritual garb of woven nettle fibers. This one took five months’ work to create. When new, it serves as ceremonial dress; when it is older, it becomes protection in the jungle.

bees © Éric Tourneret

 

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The last moment of concentration before taking action. Bolo Kesher has poured the chang, the millet beer, on the rock as an offering, then distributed a glassful to each participant. This ritual sharing is to appease the site’s spirit.

bees © Éric Tourneret

 

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The bees, panicked by the smoke, launch a massive attack which will last some twenty minutes before letting up. Every swarm on the cliff joins this offensive, meaning more than a hundred thousand enraged bees!

bees © Éric Tourneret

 

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As soon as the attack diminishes in intensity, the Perengge heaves his way up the bamboo ladder towards the first nest.

 

bees © Éric Tourneret

 

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The women, nasal septa decorated with the traditional gold pendant, have come to watch the harvest. Though the Rai divide the majority of the daily tasks between women and men, the honey hunt remains a men-only domain.

 

bees © Éric Tourneret

 

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This cliff is home to eight nests, spread out between seventy and 200 feet off the ground. Ten years ago, there were up to two hundred colonies on a single site.

bees © Éric Tourneret

 

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The rebokipe are the ladder attendants (“rebo” means rope ladder in the Rai language). With their full weight hanging from the ladder, they keep it pulled tight to facilitate the guru’s progress and move the ladder from one nest to another.

 

bees © Éric Tourneret

 

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Barehanded and barefoot, with his face unprotected, the Perengge endures repeated attacks by the bees while hanging in acrobatic positions without anything to protect him from a fall as he moves along the ladder. Some cliffs bear the names of those who lost their lives there.

bees © Éric Tourneret

 

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Barehanded and barefoot, with his face unprotected, the Perengge endures repeated attacks by the bees while hanging in acrobatic positions without anything to protect him from a fall as he moves along the ladder. Some cliffs bear the names of those who lost their lives there.

bees © Éric Tourneret

 

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The guru, vulnerable at every moment, has no choice but to roll himself into a ball to protect himself when the attacks are renewed, without coming down off the ladder.

 

bees © Éric Tourneret

 

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The rebokipe are the ladder attendants (“rebo” means rope ladder in the Rai language). With their full weight hanging from the ladder, they keep it pulled tight to facilitate the guru’s progress and move the ladder from one nest to another.

bees © Éric Tourneret

 

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Handling the long bamboo poles while under repeated attacks by the swarms requires uncommon composure and self-assurance. For this phase of the operation, the Perengge uses a rope to secure himself to the ladder.

bees © Éric Tourneret

 

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Handling the long bamboo poles while under repeated attacks by the swarms requires uncommon composure and self-assurance. For this phase of the operation, the Perengge uses a rope to secure himself to the ladder.

 

bees © Éric Tourneret

 

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Handling the long bamboo poles while under repeated attacks by the swarms requires uncommon composure and self-assurance. For this phase of the operation, the Perengge uses a rope to secure himself to the ladder.

bees © Éric Tourneret

 

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The village community chief, hands and face swollen from bee stings, attempts to collect the precious gold fluid oozing over the sheer rock face.

 

bees © Éric Tourneret

 

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As soon as the attack diminishes in intensity, the Perengge heaves his way up the bamboo ladder towards the first nest.

bees © Éric Tourneret

 

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The village community chief, hands and face swollen from bee stings, attempts to collect the precious gold fluid oozing over the sheer rock face.

bees © Éric Tourneret

 

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The guru, vulnerable at every moment, has no choice but to roll himself into a ball to protect himself when the attacks are renewed, without coming down off the ladder.

 

bees © Éric Tourneret

 

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Scarves and bags plastic offer minimal protection to these men who have come to defy the giant bee of the Himalayas, intent on taking away the bees’ honey and wax.

bees © Éric Tourneret

 

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Here, time stands still. This same phantasmagoric harvest spectacle was taking place 30,000 years ago, when the first honey hunters faced the savage swarms.

bees © Éric Tourneret

 

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The outer part of the wax disc is occupied by the brood cells harboring the larvae. Bolo Kesher must first slice this away using a long bamboo pole fitted with a wooden tip that has been whittled to form a flat blade.

bees © Éric Tourneret

 

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The honey is stored in the bulging part of the nest, attached to the rock. To collect it, the Perengge must position the bamboo basket by maneuvering another pole held at arm’s length, underneath the part he is preparing to cut away with the other pole.
From the top of the cliff, two men adjust the tension of the rope supporting the basket, guided solely by orders yelled out by Bolo Kesher’s son, who is stationed further off to have an overall view of the site. It is a coordinated effort that is accomplished blindly and on which the harvest’s success heavily depends.

bees © Éric Tourneret

 

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The honey is stored in the bulging part of the nest, attached to the rock. To collect it, the Perengge must position the bamboo basket by maneuvering another pole held at arm’s length, underneath the part he is preparing to cut away with the other pole.
From the top of the cliff, two men adjust the tension of the rope supporting the basket, guided solely by orders yelled out by Bolo Kesher’s son, who is stationed further off to have an overall view of the site. It is a coordinated effort that is accomplished blindly and on which the harvest’s success heavily depends.

bees © Éric Tourneret

 

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The honey is stored in the bulging part of the nest, attached to the rock. To collect it, the Perengge must position the bamboo basket by maneuvering another pole held at arm’s length, underneath the part he is preparing to cut away with the other pole.
From the top of the cliff, two men adjust the tension of the rope supporting the basket, guided solely by orders yelled out by Bolo Kesher’s son, who is stationed further off to have an overall view of the site. It is a coordinated effort that is accomplished blindly and on which the harvest’s success heavily depends.

bees © Éric Tourneret

 

Bees-Nepal-Hunters43

The honey is stored in the bulging part of the nest, attached to the rock. To collect it, the Perengge must position the bamboo basket by maneuvering another pole held at arm’s length, underneath the part he is preparing to cut away with the other pole.
From the top of the cliff, two men adjust the tension of the rope supporting the basket, guided solely by orders yelled out by Bolo Kesher’s son, who is stationed further off to have an overall view of the site. It is a coordinated effort that is accomplished blindly and on which the harvest’s success heavily depends.

 

bees © Éric Tourneret

 

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The dance of the Apis Laboriosa, unlike that of our Apis mellifera, takes place on the outside of the hive, on the single comb. We observed the scout bees returning with information on fields for pollen and nectar gathering located more than 12 miles from the nest.

bees © Éric Tourneret

 

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The men responsible for recovering honey are the khudhapup (“khuda” means honey in Rai). They empty the basket into a large, repoussé metal jar before filtering it.

bees © Éric Tourneret

 

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For four hours, Bolo Kesher stays suspended between earth and sky to harvest the cliff’s eight nests, each new colony visited setting off a renewed attack.

bees © Éric Tourneret

 

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For four hours, Bolo Kesher stays suspended between earth and sky to harvest the cliff’s eight nests, each new colony visited setting off a renewed attack.

 

bees © Éric Tourneret

 

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Because of the nest’s structure, comprising a single comb, the honey storage cells of the giant Himalayan bee are five to ten times longer than those of our Apis mellifera, which measure barely more than half an inch.

 

bees © Éric Tourneret

 

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For four hours, Bolo Kesher stays suspended between earth and sky to harvest the cliff’s eight nests, each new colony visited setting off a renewed attack.

bees © Éric Tourneret

 

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Handling the long bamboo poles while under repeated attacks by the swarms requires uncommon composure and self-assurance. For this phase of the operation, the Perengge uses a rope to secure himself to the ladder.

bees © Éric Tourneret

 

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The outside of the comb containing the brood is simply cut off and crashes to the ground, where the men collect the scattered pieces to recover wax and larvae.

bees © Éric Tourneret

 

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To the bees, several colonies amassed on a single site means better genetic mixing by the great production of drones.

bees © Éric Tourneret

 

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For four hours, Bolo Kesher stays suspended between earth and sky to harvest the cliff’s eight nests, each new colony visited setting off a renewed attack.

bees © Éric Tourneret

 

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Once any stuck bees are summarily removed, the honey is filtered by being forced through a cloth, then stored in jerry cans.

bees © Éric Tourneret

 

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Much honey was lost this year due to the basket being poorly balanced. The community will have harvested only about 250 pounds, too little to sell. The village council will decide to divide it between the villagers, who will put it to therapeutic use.

bees © Éric Tourneret

 

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The rebokipe are the ladder attendants (“rebo” means rope ladder in the Rai language). With their full weight hanging from the ladder, they keep it pulled tight to facilitate the guru’s progress and move the ladder from one nest to another.

bees © Éric Tourneret

 

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The bees, clinging to the reserves, fill their crops with honey to survive the destruction of their nest. During its annual migration, Apis Laboriosa can travel for weeks with a minimum of energy resources, traversing 50 to 100 miles between summer and winter nesting sites.

bees © Éric Tourneret

 

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The outside of the comb containing the brood is simply cut off and crashes to the ground, where the men collect the scattered pieces to recover wax and larvae.

bees © Éric Tourneret

 

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Once any stuck bees are summarily removed, the honey is filtered by being forced through a cloth, then stored in jerry cans.

bees © Éric Tourneret

 

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Much honey was lost this year due to the basket being poorly balanced. The community will have harvested only about 250 pounds, too little to sell. The village council will decide to divide it between the villagers, who will put it to therapeutic use.

 

bees © Éric Tourneret

 

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Bolo Kesher, the Perengge, is not a member of the committee presiding over the village community. Here, however, it is he who directs the operations with undeniable natural authority.

bees © Éric Tourneret

 

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A monsoon rain has calmed the bees’ fervor. Chang, a beverage of fermented millet, makes the rounds one last time, including as an offering to the rock. Each receives a large glassful, lips never touching the bottle.

 

bees © Éric Tourneret

 

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The first evening of the harvest, the men gather to spend the night in the hut of a herdsman, built on high-altitude pastures. Once again, the giant bee of the Himalayas put up a fearsome fight.

bees © Éric Tourneret

 

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Bolo Kesher, the Bung Perengge, in front of his home’s three-stone fireplace, dressed in the ceremonial garb made of nettle fibers with, at his waist, the kukari - the large knife of the Rai men with its angled blade.