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Apis Dorsata, also called the "giant rock bee", is the biggest social bee known today. Apis dosata are even known for their aggressiveness, beekeepers have never managed to domesticate them.
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Irula and Kurumba tribes, who are mainly specilized in the ancient practice of the honey hunting, are forest dwellers living in the Nilgiri's mountains, in southern India.
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Irula honey hunters always work in small groups, among them only one climbs close to the beehive, the others mainly have support duties, such as passing him ropes, buckets and producing smoke.
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An Irula honey hunter is completely removing a beehive from the cliff. This procedure is now disappearing, since the bees take more than a year to built a new nest.
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An Irula honey hunter lift the bucket to his companion climbing the cliff. Honey hunters consider themselves as something more than coworkers: bonded by a strong relationship of mutual trust, they entrust their lives to each others, and their moves are coordinated like the bees' ones.
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Irula honey hunters carry many bee combs in a bucket after a hunt.
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After being stung so many times, human body easily develops a partial immunity to the poison of the bees. Anyway, the stingers stuck in the flesh still hurt. Honey hunters believe that they will not be stung by the bees if they follow a path of pureness: they must follow a stricly vegetarian diet, avoid to use soaps and to have any contact with the women for at least 3 weeks preceding a hunt.
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Honey hunters don't wear any protection during the climbing of high trees or cliffs sourrounded by thousands of bees, they entrust their lives entirely to few tools: a rope and a blade.
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Irula and Kurumba know a song (actually a sung prayer) that can calm down the bees.
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A Kurumba honey hunter is sharpeninig a long stick used to cut the hive.
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Siva, who just turned 19, is one of the more promising honey hunters among the Kurumba tribe. He can climb a 30 mt tall tree in less than 3 minutes, and he is pretty proud of it.
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A Kurumba honey hunter is lifting a bucket to the top of a "silk cotton" tree.
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For several years before they are allowed to attend their first actual honey collection, kurumba children can only learn by watching from a distance.
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Young Siva proudly shows the only bee sting reported after a whole week spent hunting deep in the forest. Since he is still young, his body still greately suffers for every single sting it gets.
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The best honey hunters from the past generations, mostly deads during an huney collection, are honoured being painted on gravestones deep in the forest. Before leaving the village for a long journey in the forest, Kurumba honey hunters visit the traditional graveyard in order to pray and make offers to the ancestors. This will grant the protection from the past generations of hunters during a dangerous honey collection.
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Irula honey hunters filter the honey directly from the combs, removing wax, leaves and dead bees. As a filter they use their own traditional men's garment (dhoti).
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A woman whashing the bucket after a hunting session. It is said that in ancient times even women used to be honey hunters. According to the legend, they were later forbidden because a demon could fall in love with them, and give vent to his jealousy killing the men while climbing the cliffs.
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Kurumba honey hunters turned their own village in a family-run business, in which men, children, women and the elder help each other collecting and filtering honey.
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Sam is the youngest honey hunter from the small village of Semenarae. While his parents want him to become a brave honey hunter as his dad, he attend the tribal school and would rather move to the city and find a job there one day.
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The Kurumbas, working in large groups, can cover a wider area of the forest. A single hunting session can yield a return of more than 100 liters of honey.
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Kurumba honey hunters often work splitted in two groups, each one led by an expert honey hunter, in order to cover a wider area in the forest and outdo the competitors from other tribes. Every one of them is reporting to Rasu (on the left), the elder honey hunter leader as well as an hindu priest.
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Rasu, the chief of Kurumba honey hunters and a hindu priest, seasons some jackfruit seeds with the bitter honey from the last hunting session.
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Kurumba hunters bring the honey jars from the jungle to the closest road, where a jeep from the city is waiting for buying the honey.
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Kurumba honey hunters check their ropes while waiting for the buyers from the city.
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Kurumba and Irula children can chose to attend a special tribal school for free. Often their parents disagree with this choice, since the school keeps their children away from the village business and doesn't teach anything related to agriculture and honey hunting, the activities that basically sustain the local economy.
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In the lab of the Keystone Foundation in Kotagiri, honey coming from Irula and Kurumba hunters meets the standard of purity and quality required from a wider fair trade market, both national and international.
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Women consuming nuts and leaves of betel, a psychoactive drug, during the wake for the death of a Kurumba hunter.
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Kurumba honey hunters know a holy song that can calm down the bees.
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Inside an Irula house: here the cult of ancestors, hinduism and christianity live along with the brands from the close urban enviroment.

Honey Hunting in the Nilgiris

Semenarae - Banglapadigay, Tamil Nadu, India, 2014.

The honey hunters of the Nilgiri mountains in India, belonging to the tribal groups Kurumba and Irula, specialize in harvesting of the precious bitter honey of the Apis dorsata, the largest and most aggressive bee species known today.

Wrapped in swarms of thousands of bees, the Indian honey hunters work without any protection. They hunt barefoot and entrust their lives only to a strong rope and long purification rituals: for weeks before harvest time begins in the forest, they stop using soap, perform daily prayers, avoid any contact with women and follow a strict vegetarian diet.

The honey of Apis dorsata, It is taken directly from the combs found on the steepest cliffs or in the tallest trees of the forest, is now commonly known as "liquid gold". In the past twenty years, its price has increased from about 5 rupees a liter to the current 500, experiencing an incredible increase of 10.000% of its initial value. Between the Blue Mountains in Southern India a true "honey war" has started: rival groups of collectors perform real works of sabotage to win exclusive territory on the best hives.
The honey hunters of the Nilgiri, heroic figures midway between saints and entrepreneurs, are a living form of tradition that have adapted to a modern context by bring together beliefs and ancient rituals with the new threats of market expansion. These men, praying under the high cliffs and risking their lives among the swarms of giant bees, are become today entrepreneurs. Their request for prosperity to the Gods has now become very concrete: in fact, as in many other parts of the world, today they just pray for a salary.

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