The Song Of The Honey Collector

In Arunachal’s Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary, a dwindling tribe shares a unique bond with a rare species of honeyguide birds
Rhododendrons at Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary, Arunachal Pradesh
Rhododendrons at Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary, Arunachal PradeshPhoto: Shutterstock

The Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary in Arunachal Pradesh’s West Kameng district is known as the land of the Bugun Liocichla, a critically endangered bird first spotted in 1995 and described in 2006.

While the Bugun Liocichla is the star among the birdwatchers who flock to this mecca of biodiversity, the locals keep their ears trained for the “srik srik srik” of the short-billed yellow-rumped honeyguide that leads them to hidden reserves of honey in the forest.

In March and April, the forests in the sanctuary are ablaze with rhododendrons in full bloom. The bees feed on the pollen of the Rhododendron arboreum, a species found in abundance here, and produce honey that packs a hallucinogenic punch.

This highly-prized “mad honey,” as it is called, has a slightly bitter taste and a reddish colour.

Photo: Anjora Noronha

A Living Tradition

Chumbi Megeji, one of the last honey collectors (or chilopa) in the area surrounding Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary, has a particular fondness for the flavour of the honey produced by this flower species. He belongs to the Shertukpen community of Thungre village in West Kameng district, and is bound by the traditional rules that govern a chilopa. He has to first sing to the bees and then to the wax-eating yellow-rumped honeyguide. He cannot be called by name and sleeps on a bed of leaves in the forest when collecting honey.

A honey collection journey can take five days, with around 20 to 30 people heading together into the forest. Only four honey collectors are left in Megeji’s village, and each clan has a designated mountain from which they harvest honey.

“Jisko himmat hai, wahi jaata hai (only the brave venture out on the journey),” says Pema Musabi, our accompanying research guide from the Shertukpen community. Megeji, however, says that even if you are courageous, you may not have it in you to be a honey collector. It’s a special calling.

The honey collectors sing a particular song, assuring the bees that a sacred person has come to collect honey:

“We are not your enemies.

The blue pine, dhupi, and other beautiful trees you live in are as beautiful as yak fur.

From the east, you look like a ray of moonlight when you leave the honeycomb.

The sound of your buzz sounds like the chant of a Buddhist monk.

Kings from all over are asking for your honey.

Stay here, in this house made of gold and fill it with your liquid treasure.

Sit, sit (choye, choye). We will meet again when the khan-dok-mintu (rhododendron flowers) bloom again.

Choye, choye.”

The honey collectors light a fire below the hive to subdue the bees with smoke and make them leave it. While baskets lined with natural rubber were traditionally used to collect honey, Megeji says they have now been replaced by tin containers.

After the honey is extracted, parts of the white honeycomb are kept as offerings to the marchang mame (the Shertukpen name for the yellow-rumped honeyguide). Then they sing again, inviting the bird to come and feast.

A Syncretic Relationship

Studies on honeyguides from Africa suggest that people use other methods besides smoke to subdue bees, such as fungi or aromatic plants, indicating that these relationships may be so ancient that they even predate the discovery of fire.

There are stories about honeyguides in different cultures, a reminder of multi-species and more-than-human companionships. In Africa, honeyguides are considered companions to humans who work together to find a beehive.

Yellow-rumped honeyguide
Yellow-rumped honeyguide

In northern Kenya, the greater honeyguide is known to make at least two calls. The first is a “guiding call” that helps the Boran people navigate their way to the beehive, while the second is an “indication call” made when the bird arrives at the hive. The bird helps humans find the bee nests and the wax left behind in the empty honeycombs.

The relationship between dogs and humans is a well-known and often overused example of the bond between humans and animals. However, there are many such instances, like the bond between dolphins and fishermen and that of the tiny yellow-rumped honeyguide with the honey collectors of Eaglenest.

A Rhododendron arboreum in full bloom
A Rhododendron arboreum in full bloomPhoto: Millo Tasser

The last honey collectors around Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary exemplify the intricate relationships in our ethnosphere and biosphere, where diversity in nature and culture are interconnected.

The cliffs, mountain ledges, and steep slopes where honeyguides live not only hold special meaning about the trials and triumphs of life but also contain stories relevant in these turbulent times.

We are better off when we all get along, not just honeyguides and humans, but also within the human species.

A Community Protected Forest

Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary and the surrounding community forests are the centerpiece of the Kameng Protected Area Complex, spread across two states and five protected areas. The bird diversity of Eaglenest and its surrounding forests has been protected by the resident Bugun and Shertukpen communities. The critically endangered Bugun language, which the Endangered Language Project notes to have only 1,700 native speakers, finds a voice here.

Over 700 species of birds are known from a 100 sq. km region centered around Eaglenest, second in the world only to the eastern slope of the Andes in South America. The most important discovery remains the Bugun Liocichla (Liocichla bugunorum), and other rare bird species, including Ward’s Trogon (Harpactes wardi) and Beautiful Nuthatch (Sitta formosa).

Dr. Nandini Velho is the author of Eaglenest Memory Project, illustrated by Anjora Noronha, which sought to recreate the history of this forest

Related Stories

No stories found.
Outlook Traveller