The Honey Hunters Of Central Sri Lanka
In one Sri Lankan village, the locals live a simple life that is influenced by their search for honey – from birth to death.
The bees of Malwatta forest don’t know who they are up against when they hide their nectar. They probably think their treasure is safe but they don’t know the ability of those Sri Lankans who live in Kudapokuna, near the forest.
The villagers have been learning where to collect honey for generations. Their home is in the Polonnaruwa district, in central Sri Lanka, with a mountain range and river on one side and the forests and a nature reserve on the other. The people here are of various ethnicities and religions but they are all united by the main occupations here: weaving cane baskets, fishing and of course, collecting honey.
Our generation knows how to find the hives, just by keeping an ear to the trunk of the tree.
“In April we go into the forests to collect honey,” says K. Selvanayagam, an elderly honey collector from Kudapokuna. “people who go for a day, take a hand axe, a bucket and a cigar or cigarette to blow smoke [into the hive]. If they find two or three hives, they can fill seven or eight honey bottles – and that’s enough for a day.”
Kudapokuna locals sometimes go into the forests for a few days. Wildlife authorities don’t approve of their work so they do their best to avoid any officials. Sometimes the villagers go for even longer and then they will stay in a cave or under a tree and bring supplies like rice, spices and matches.
“You cook a potato or catch a fish from a water hole and your meal is complete,” Selvanayagam explains.
The trickiest part of the job is finding the hives. They say that they go to the forest at the crack of dawn, to sit under flowering trees and listen out for the sound of bees buzzing. Then they trail the bees, following their sound until hey find a hive. Once a hive is secured, cigarette smoke is blown into the hive causing the bees to flee, at which stage the honey can be harvested.
Honey can also be found at dusk, says another local, Yogeswaran. “In the evening the bees come to the hive and our generation knows how to find the hives, just by keeping an ear to the trunk of the tree. So you sleep at the bottom of the tree and then you collect the honey when you get up in the morning.”
It is not just the men of Kudapokuna who go on these missions. Women also undertake this job.
“Fishing and collecting honey is a tradition,” explains Saraswathie Indrani, one of the local women who climbs trees looking for hives and chasing bees. “Before you get married, you do this with your mother and father. After you get married, you go with your husband.”
Previous generations could not afford to give daughters a dowry, so, as Indrani explains, “the best dowry was to marry a woman who can collect honey.”
By August, the honey collecting is over for the season and for the rest of the year, fishing is the job for most.
The honey collecting informs much of the village life. Most of the villagers live in simple huts and there isn’t much privacy. Going into the jungle to look for honey with your partner can offer a sweet return.
When somebody in the village dies, it is traditional to apply bees honey to the person’s lips. Honey is also applied to the kips of the new born infant. And the most precious offering that the villagers can make to their gods is honey.