Rockbee StoryDecember 1, 2011
Many moons ago when the forest had an abundance of wild animals and the trees grew thick and tall, Thrungsanwu and a few friends went to the forest on a hunt. As is the practice, the hunters spread out to cover more ground. They had ventured into some virgin forest where no hunter had gone before. Thrungsanwu was cautiously following the fresh footprints of a bear which led to some dense vegetation. With his well used muzzle loading gun at the ready, he slowly crept through the dense undergrowth and the huge trees. All of a sudden he was out of the thick undergrowth and there in front of him stood a sheer rockface.
Thrungsanwu forgot all about the bear he was stalking and stood looking at the rock face. It was dotted with a huge number of bee hives. He has never seen such a large number of bee hives at one place before.
He sounded out to his hunting buddies. When they came, they stood and watched the rock and the bees…as amazed as Thrungsanwu.
That evening, Thrungsanwu stood before the village council and announced that he believed he is the first one from the village to have seen the bee hives. Since no one disputed his claim, he claimed the hives as his own. Ofcourse he would share some of the spoils with the friends who were with him and saw the hives also.
Thrungsanwu, who is from the Yimchunger tribe, hailed from the village of Mimi, in the district of Kiphire in Nagaland. As is the tradition, anyone who sights a bee hive first, becomes the owner of those hives and the ownership is passed down to the children. Thrungsanwu’s grandson, Mazho is now the owner of the hives and shares the honey and revenue with the decedents of his grandfather’s hunting buddies.
Rockbee harvesting was on a decline for the last 10 years and the villagers had all but given up the practice. Mimi is a far flung village, located on the borders of Myanmar and there is no proper transportation to the main cities of the state. It is near about 400 kms away from the state capital of Kohima. The honey they procure from the hives had no outlet for sale and did not generate any revenue for the villagers.
The Nagaland Beekeeping and Honey Mission, with the support of Navajbai Ratan Tata Trust (NRTT) have been working for the last few years now to revive this dying tradition. And the results have been very encouraging indeed. NRTT provided funds for capacity building exercise, skill upgradation of the harvesters, tools, equipment and storage containers.
The process of harvesting the honey is fraught with danger. I was as amazed, as the young Thrungsanwu must have been, by the sheer rockface. The rock protruded out of the ground vertically to about a height of 300 meters and was dotted with 85 huge bee hives. And all the hives were on the top half of the rock.
I stood a little distance away from the rock, armoured against the swarming bees with a thick jacket and a mesh face protect hat net. As I watched, the villagers from Mimi lit the fires at the base of the rock and the buzz of the Giant Himalayan Rockbees (Apis Laboriosa) got louder as the smoke drove them out from the hives. We were lucky that the wind was just right and the smoke drifted up to the hives. A slight change in the wind pattern would have driven the bees to where we were standing and that sure would have been a rather painful evening!
The Honey Mission had supplied the villagers with helicopter ladders and other safety gears but other than a few net hats, nothing else was used. They preferred to stick to their traditional ways which are not necessarily the safest or the best result oriented. But it is hard to break away from age old tradition.
A group of singing men appeared at the base of the rock pulling a very long ladder made of jungle vines and bamboo and it made its way up to the very top of the rock. A man started descending through the swinging ladder carrying a couple of indigenous tools. One was a spade like tool to cut off the hive from the rock and the other was a torch to smoke out the bees. They had long handles and the man handled them with amazing dexterity even while hanging 300 meters above the ground. All the safety measures that the man had were the prayers on his lips. And they seem to work too as they have had no causalities over the years!
A bucket was lowered from the top and the man on the ladder began cutting off the hives into the bucket. With a million bees swarming all over him, it certainly was an extremely difficult task. A lot of the honey goes to waste because of the impossible angles that the hives are built on. Many of the hives cannot be reached at all. Two harvesters also climbed up from below and collected the hives from an overhang which would have been impossible for the man on the ladder to reach.
The number of hives and the amount of honey they produce depends a lot on the climatic conditions. There were 64 hives last year compared to the 85 hives this year. On an average, each hive produces 8 to 10 kilos of honey and it takes three days to harvest the all the hives. Some modern methods of squeezing out of the hives would have yielded better results. As of now, the method is traditional. The hives are placed on an inclined platform of banana leaves with a funnel at the end where a bamboo strainer is placed to keep the bees from going in to the container.
The Nagaland Rockbee and Honey Mission buys off the honey from the villagers at the market price thus encouraging them to harvest more and in a better way. The harvesting is done twice a year from this rock. There are reports of many other rockbee colonies in the forest of the village and also inside Myanmar but they are too deep into the forest and the villagers just let them be…for now.
The drive from Pungro to Mini is very interesting. At some stretches, tall grass and trees form a canopy over the road…almost like a tunnel. The road passes through meadows and hills with pine trees standing against a clear blue sky with puffs of white clouds. There are steep drops on the side and beyond are the virgin forests right up to the Myanmar border. And it is off-road all the way.
Mimi itself is an interesting village. There are a couple of huge caves that would bring an ear to ear grin to any adventurer’s face. The steep drop to the caves is tiring indeed and if one wants to explore the cave in true earnest, it would take at least a couple of days of camping. The forests of Mimi have animals like hollock gibbon, bear, deer, a huge variety of birds and other small animals. I head the gibbons far away during a walk through the forest with a couple of very informative villagers but I certainly didn’t see them. They said there were 8 of them.
The old ladies of Mimi makes lovely potteries and they do not use the wheel. They beat the clay with a flat wooden plank and make potteries of all sizes – large ones to store rice or rice beer and the smallest ones for chutney! They make intricate smoking pipes too.
Only women of the village make the potteries and there is a traditionally compelling reason why. What the men folk bring from a hunt are cooked in the pots the women make. If the men stayed at home to make pots, the family would go hungry.
Now the pots, inscribed “Made In Mimi” are filled with honey.
- Air India operates daily flights from Delhi to Dimapur. Dimapur to Kohima is 78 kms. From Kohima, it is a day’s journey by an SUV to Pungro. The next day, you will have to take another 3 hour journey to teach Mimi Village.
- It is necessary to travel on a SUV like Bolero or Scorpio and preferably with a 4×4 option because you would be travelling through a lot of bad roads. A lot of new roads are being built and hence the bad surface
- The harvesting takes place twice a year. In May-June and in mid October. A lot depends on the climatic condition. The villagers check the hives regularly during this time to ascertain the time of harvesting.
- In Mimi, you can also go caving and go for some short treks in the forest.
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