Honey hunting


by Viola Giorgione

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With our eyes and hearts on hold, we had the opportunity to see the ritual of honey hunting, one of the most ancient human activities. This traditional practice is still preserved in parts of Africa, Asia, Australia and South America. The Ogiek Honey Slow Food Presidium was launched to protect the Mau Forest ecosystem and promote the value of the Ogiek people’s ancestral culture.

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To a degree not found in other societies, the hunting-gathering Ogiek tribe have built their social and economical structures around honey, becoming the central theme in their existence. It is likely that the Ogiek are the oldest tribe living in central Kenya and their cultural identity is strictly determined by their need to use the Mau forest. Their forest adaptation is primarily predicated upon the importance of honey and its multiple uses, other than adapting their living on resources such as hunting for wild animals and collecting wild fruits. In a period of normal hunting activity, honey was mainly used as a preservative for smoked meat the Ogiek used to store (a single buffalo preserved in honey could feed a family of 5 members for a period lasting up to 3 years). In periods of scarcity of meat, honey was used as a nutritional addition but it was mainly traded with neighboring communities and used for bridewealth payment.

The technology of honey gathering

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The hive is hollowed from a mature cedar tree trunk, it can last at least eight years and for up to two generations. It is a male practice and boys begin to make their first hives at 8-10 years old.
Climbing the tree, they pull the hive up after them and place it securely against the trunk, between two level branches.
Honey is produced from at least 33 plants and each species is found at specific altitudes, with flowering periods that vary based on the amount of rain.  The result is a constant fluctuation in size, location, and time of honey production. This means that the honey hunter needs to acquire a deep knowledge of the forest and its times, knowledge that is passed down from generation to generation.

The skill of the Ogiek in handling the bees, especially when harvesting, is really impressive. Before climbing on the tree where the log-hive is placed, the beekeeper prepares the tools he needs for harvesting: a leather bag, a puff of vegetal musk, no matter if green or dry, where he burns some small pieces of cedar tree. The Ogiek use the ancient method of rubbing one thin stick made of soft wood, on top of another, a little bigger one, always of cedar or of another dry and hard wood.
Even if it looks easy, it took 6 of us to get the spark going!

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Once he reaches the hive, he first blows some smoke towards the opening. When he is sure that the bees have moved away, he opens the log. Before putting his hand into the hive, he blows again more smoke inside, obliging the bees to keep away from the central part. It is true that, even though they do not have any protective equipment, they rarely are stung by their bees. Collected the honeycombs full of liquid gold, he places everything into his bag to climb down.

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An unexplainable flavor, the one of smoked honey chewed directly from the honeycomb in the middle of the humid and cold forest. Once home, we were so disappointed that the packaged honey wasn’t tasting like what we had there. But that flavor, just like all the study trip’s feelings and memories of what we touch and taste, can only remain etched in our minds.


Some readings to explore how honey hunting is done around the world:
The ancient art of honey hunting in Nepal
The Last Death-Defying Honey Hunter

Photo Credits:
Philip Linander, Amber Bewick