Balancing precariously on a rope ladder, a Gurung tribesman pokes tentatively at a bee’s nest with a sharpened bamboo stick. Surrounded by thick smoke and thousands of angry Himalayan honeybees, he uses a second pole to position the basket hanging below, catching the honeycomb as it falls.
The Gurung people of central Nepal have been collecting honey in this way for centuries, and today they still work without modern safety equipment. The cliffs from which they harvest are often named after tribesmen who have fallen to their deaths while collecting honey.
Honey is collected twice each year, in spring and autumn. The red honey produced in the spring by the indigenous Apis laboriosa bees is particularly prized as it is considered to have an intoxicating or relaxing effect.
Before the harvest can begin, a number of rituals are carried out to appease the cliff gods. An animal is sacrificed and offerings of flowers, fruit and rice are made. Finally, a fire is lit at the base of the cliff so that its smoke will disperse the bees.
Each hunter is supported by a team of up to a dozen men. In some honey-collecting communities, tradition dictates that women are not even allowed to watch the process.
Once the basket is full, the hunter signals to a colleague perched at the top of the cliff to lower it down to the ground. The delicate operation to harvest a colony can take 2-3 hours.
A villager prepares a cup of honey tea. The Nepalese forestry commission has begun to shift ownership of the cliffs away from local communities to the government, allowing them to open honey-harvesting rights to contractors.
The ancient practice of honey hunting faces an uncertain future. Deforestation, tourism and the diseases carried by non-native bees are among the threats highlighted in a research project carried out by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development.
-- Reporting by Andrew Newey and David Arnott, NBC News.