Wild honey

Recently I caught a BBC documentary about pig farmer Jimmy Doherty’s visit to Nepal to gather honey with the local people using traditional methods in a highly risky situation.

As a ‘honey hunter’ Jimmy must scale a massive cliff to reach the home of more than two million bees and dangle 200 feet up to get their honey. If successful, the reward is not only to learn more about these amazing bees, but also to taste one of nature’s finest bounties, beautiful wild honey.

To make matters trickier, Jimmy doesn’t speak Nepali, and his hosts controlling the rope ladder from which he dangled didn’t speak any English. What’s more, these aren’t your friendly, common or garden honey bees. Due to the high altitudes in which they live, these bees are much larger. Jimmy’s medical advisers estimated that while he could get away with being stung a couple of times, more than seven stings would probably be fatal. The Nepalese protect themselves with simple smocks which leave the hands and feet exposed; Jimmy covered everything. Nevertheless, he somehow got stung three times.

The people who’ve gathered honey in this way for generations have built up a number of customs and superstitions around the practice. Some of these are quite sensible, like the rule that they always leave at least half the hives untouched, which ensures that plenty of colonies survive for the next year. Other pre-gathering rituals make less sense. They apparently take some time deciding when to make the climb and the decision hinges on such factors as the phase of the moon, the types of clouds observed and the condition of a newly-slaughtered sheep’s entrails.

Superstitions seem to arise most readily when there are many factors at least partly out of human control – although this video-clip shows at least one peril that could easily have been avoided. It’s not just the Nepalese honey hunters – most hunting cultures have pre-hunt good luck rituals. Historically sailors have also been quite superstitious, again perhaps due to the many risks of extended periods at sea and the capricious nature of the weather.

HMS BeagleIf you’re just rounding Cape Horn and the mother of all storms blows up, then even if you are incredibly rational and do everything right, it still might not save you. Hunting for food is vital to the survival of the group, but also a risky and unpredictable business. The prey might have moved on to more remote pastures or be in a particularly aggressive mood and injure members of the hunting party. Back in Nepal, I imagine that even today’s experts would still have trouble divining the moods of the bees or the stability the of the cliffs on which they nest. In all cases, there’s a factor that is out of human control.

To confuse things further, many superstitious beliefs mix readily with more useful ones. There are some pretty good reasons for not walking under a ladder that have nothing to do with the Holy Trinity or triangles and pyramids. In another example, there is a mariners’ rhyme which reads:

Trace in the sky a painters brush,
Then winds around you soon will rush

Long wispy cirrus clouds which can resemble a brush are indicative of a warm front approaching, bringing rain and wind. So there can be some truth to such folklore. Maybe the Nepalese honey hunters’ superstitions relating to clouds were also somewhat informative. However, it’s hard to imagine what genuine insights they could glean from a sheep’s intestine.

So in the face of situations beyond their control why do people resort to superstition?

It seems to me, with my armchair psychologist hat on, that us humans are especially uncomfortable when we don’t feel in control of our destiny. When in risky situations, with large elements of luck involved, we seem more likely to come up with superstitious rituals intended to protect us or predict the outcome. It might not help, but it makes us feel like we’re doing something when really nothing can be done. Put like that, it seems like a mild form of obsessive-compulsive disorder and I guess it’s somewhat understandable that people in risky situations would get anxious.

So the answer seems to be “comfort”. Superstitious rituals that provide comfort are often harmless, unless they distract people from genuinely useful actions or make it harder for them to make the right decisions about the risks they’re taking.

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