Tualang Trees and large honey bees!! - Malaysia

wooden steps nailed onto the trunk of the tualang tree makes it easy for harvesters to reach the honey combs

All geared up and ready to go, we were hoping to accompany the entourage of harvesters but only to be disappointed. The ancient honey gathering ritual was to begin two weeks later according to the cycle of the moon. Honey can only be gathered on moonless nights and although we came during the right season which falls in February(or sometimes in March) but we fell short on the time of month. So for those of you interested in witnessing the rituals, call the Pedu resorts for latest news on schedules. This honey-harvesting season is also reliant on the rains, which affect the blooms of the wild flowers and that in turn affect the honeybees. They are all connected one way or another and this makes the rainforest all the more fascinating and fragile!

We made our way to the Tualang tree despite not being able to join in the fun on the night of the ritual. The trek started off pretty easy. A well-marked trek took us closer to our destination but the last twenty minutes drew a little more effort. The incline was close to 45° and with more muscle power to drive each step we felt our precious reserve body fluids and energy draining away. We were allowed to stop for a final rest on a flat rock just round the corner from the tree. As we turned the corner, we were greeted with the most spectacular tree. Having been told too many times how tall the tree is, I could not imagine its greatness. The white smooth trunk pushes the Tualang (Koompasia excelsa) canopy some 150feet (50m)high (roughly 15 storeys high). It takes 4 grown men with outstretched arms to circle the base of the tree. I don't know how many centuries this tree has lived but it has to be one of the oldest around and a fine living specimen it is.

This white tower is home to Apis Dorsatas, world's largest honeybees and the most ferocious. These honeybees build their beads of nests up on the branches of tualang trees, about 100 feet from the forest floor as the smooth trunk of the tualang makes it difficult for humans and sunbears to climb.

I threw my head back as far as I could, peering through my binoculars and there they were! The bees can reach as long as an inch and they can be seen tightly blanketing the 6 feet (2m) wide single comb nests that they have painstakingly constructed to store their honey and offspring.

Honey gatherers have to carry out their task on a moonless night or when the moon has gone down as darkness lulls the bees into a docile slumber, and allowing them a reasonably safe passage to the combs. Imagine every nest containing an average of 30,000 giant Asian honeybees, each able to pack a powerful sting! When visiting the trees during the ritual, make sure that no one in the group lights a cigarette or flicks on a torch. The light, however dim, acts like a beacon to them. These aggressors will 'make a beeline' for the poor victims and anybody in their way will be indiscriminately attacked.

But for us, we can only imagine the entire scenario what it would be like on the night of the harvest and the preparations before the season begins. Pak Teh, the local pawang or medicine man has been coming to the same tree since 1965 to harvest honey. Every year before any honey gathering can happen, the hunters must obtain a permit to harvest these hives from the Sultan of Kedah as this lucrative business has attracted at least 70 groups of Tualang honey hunters. Competition is rife. There are only 10 'inhabited' Tualang trees that are scattered widely around the lake area. The bees are very picky with their abode and return to the same trees year after year, and not all Tualang trees are appropriate.

Once the permit is granted, the rituals can proceed. The trek begins just past midnight. The harvesters, their supporters, scientists, tourists make up the entourage. Each one with senses fully awakened by the familiar and unfamiliar noises in the jungle.

As the night wears on, the harvesters begin their chant offerings to the giant honeybees - cajoling them, soothing them, calming their unpredictable temperaments. These incantations are derived from ancient animalistic rituals mixed in with drips and drabs of Hindu and Islamic symbolism. Pak Teh is already in his mid-70s and yet still climbs the tree to get at the honey. Before making his ascend, the wiry old man performs his ritual bathing and prayers. He also prepares a pot of honey at the bottom of the tree as a form of peace offering. He strongly adheres to the taboos and precautions, for the climb is a difficult one and any mistake is a fatal one. Pak Teh, his grandson and another helper climb up what looks like a flimsy, makeshift ladder nailed onto the trunk of the tree. No safety nets, no harnesses and no back up skill; experience and prayer keep them safe.

flowers in bloom attract bees into the jungle

As they disappear up the tree and into the darkness beyond, the entourage silently listens for any sign of movement up in the canopy. After a long wait, a signal comes for the cowhide bucket to be sent up on the pulley they had earlier constructed. Helpers at the bottom reinstate their chants throughout the night until daybreak. Pak Teh positions himself on a sturdy branch, at arm's length from the first gigantic hive, ready for the first harvest. To ensure that the drowsy bees don't swarm him, he lights a torch made from tightly bound, dried and pounded liana vines. As the fire crackles and creeps slowly up the torch, Pak Teh sweeps the smouldering end towards the comb and brushes on the blanket of bees surrounding it. Tapping the torch on the branch, like how one would tap a cigar to rid the ash, Pak Teh sends a rain of cinder down to the forest floor. The honeybees now fully awakened, dive down with the shower of sparks. The thousands of bees create quite a stir, their buzz - almost deafening as it rings out into the dark night. Everyone at the bottom of the tree cowers for fear of being swarmed by potential killer bees. On the contrary, the bees are more interested in the dying cinders on the forest floor, clustering round them and clinging onto the lush foliage around. The bees are unable to fly back to the canopy in the dark and have to wait for the first rays of the sun to guide them up to the remaining hive.

By daybreak the harvesters would have collected most of what is allowed using the shoulder bone of a cow to carefully cut away the comb. The collected honey are filled into 7-gallon containers and later transported to the markets for sale. A ketchup bottle filled with pure honey from these harvests can fetch RM40 - RM45 each. Regarded as one of the best wild honey in the world, Pak Teh and the rest of the harvesters have been reaping good harvests for years. Each season, they can harvest as much as 150,000 lbs. of honey. However, the locals have realised that the recent years' seasons have been showing signs of depletion. Each tree used to house on average 100 hives per season but recently been down to only 80 hives. The concern is the logging that has been going on in the area. Many flowering trees and plants have been taken away and therefore reducing the bees' feeding grounds. If indiscriminate logging continues, this charming ritual will disappear along with the beauty of the area.