While there are many different types of bees that can be kept as livestock for their honey, there are also honey bees that only exist in the wild.
The Himalayan honey bee is a very unique species. They share many traits with their relatives, but they also have several physical characteristics and behaviors. These bees even produce honey that’s unlike other honey bees.
Keep reading to learn all about the Himalayan honey bee, where they can be found, and what makes their honey so special.
What Is a Himalayan Honey Bee?
The Himalayan honey bee, Apis laboriosa, is one of several subspecies that are commonly referred to as Himalayan bees.
Some of these subspecies were originally grouped together but have since been declared as distinct. The other three bees under the Himalayan umbrella are Apis cerana, Apis florea, and Apis dorsata.
The laboriosa and dorsata varieties were once believed to be the same, but as of 2020 they are officially designated as separate subspecies. This grouping is comprised of very different bees with very different characteristics.
The true Himalayan honey bee is also called the Himalayan Giant honey bee or the Himalayan cliff honey bee.
While we know quite a lot about many different types of honey bees, this species is much lesser known. They have been studied far less than other species, mainly because they’re very inaccessible and aren’t kept in apiaries.
Where They Come From
Himalayan honey bees are mostly found in the Hindu Kush region of the Himalayas.
They also live in the mountains of Bhutan as well as parts of China, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Viet Nam, and Laos.
They generally occupy high altitudes from 2,500 to 3,000 meters above sea level, which is definitely unlike just about any other type of honey bee.
They have several special adaptations that allow them to live in areas that would be impossible for other honey bees to survive in.
Everything That Makes the Himalayan Honey Bee Unique
Compared to the much more common Western honey bee, the Himalayan honey bee is very distinct in many ways, including appearance, behavior, hive structure, and even honey production.
Next to nothing is known about Himalayan queens due to how elusive this species is.
The Himalayan honey bee is the single largest species of honey bee. Mature adults can be as long as 1.2 inches!
Unlike their relatives, they are dark brown with long yellow hairs and have a dark abdomen with no striping.
Workers and drones are about the same size, another way in which they differ from other honey bees where the drones are significantly larger than the workers.
Himalayan honey bees can forage up to 4,1000 meters above sea level and are specially adapted to high altitudes.
Throughout the year, they migrate seasonally between different altitudes.
From May to October, they go higher up to existing nest sites, then come back down when the temperature drops. In the winter, they migrate to the forest floor and live under rocks or at the bottom of trees and cluster to stay warm. During this time, they do not have a nest.
In late January, they go back to their mid-level nest sites until summer, when the cycle begins again.
One way they defend their colony is called “shimmering.” This is a behavior where they organize to create a visual ripple effect to confuse an attacker by moving their wings in a coordinated pattern. This makes it too hard to pick out individuals and can intimidate intruders.
Hives on Cliffs
Even the way Himalayan honey bees nest is unlike any other honey bee.
They construct huge nests on the southwestern or southeastern side of rocky cliff overhangs to help protect them from the elements. These nests can get up to almost five feet long by 3.5 feet wide, much larger than your average hive.
Himalayan honey bee nests can hold as much as 130 pounds of honey at a time.
Rather than having several hanging pieces of comb, they are a single open comb with very large cells.
These bees will build their nests very close to water sources, and they appear to prefer building on rocks that are lighter in color.
The honey made by Himalayan honey bees has a high moisture content. This means it will begin to ferment much more quickly than the honey you’d find in the grocery store.
Apis laboriosa makes three different kinds of honey: red honey from flowers at high altitudes, spring honey from mid and lower altitudes, and fall honey from various altitudes.
Red honey, also known as psychedelic or mad honey, can have a drug-like and relaxing effect because it’s made with nectar from white rhododendrons. The nectar of these flowers contains grayanotoxin, a neurotoxin that is known to cause hallucinations. If enough of this honey is consumed, it is potentially dangerous and can cause “mad honey disease.”
Red honey is very valuable, worth around five times as much as conventional honey. It’s frequently exported to Hong Kong, Japan, and Korea. While it isn’t typically sold locally, it is used medicinally and recreationally by the Nepalese Gurung people.
Himalayan honey bees are the only species that make this kind of honey. Since beekeepers don’t keep hives at these altitudes, the only way to harvest the honey is by hanging down off the cliffs.
This harvesting process is called “honey hunting” and goes back thousands of years. Local men make rope ladders with wooden rungs and attach them to the cliff above the nests.
Down below, fires are set so that the smoke will drift upward and drive the bees away. The harvesters then climb up, cut the comb down, and bring it back in a basket to extract the honey. This practice accounts for more than half of the honey harvested in this region.
Unfortunately, honey hunting is also responsible for a steep drop in the population of Himalayan honey bees because the entire nest is removed. Other factors in their decline include habitat loss from landslides and deforestation, and the spread of diseases and parasites.
Unlike Any Other Honey Bee
The Himalayan is a truly unique species compared to the much more common honey bees most people are familiar with.
Unfortunately, these are not honey bees you can keep in an apiary. You’re unlikely to see them or even get a taste of the very special honey they make, and you certainly won’t be able to harvest it from your own backyard.
Regardless, they’re still interesting to learn about, and they have so many traits and behaviors that you won’t find in another other species of honey bee anywhere in the world.
Interested in learning more about these miraculous pollinators? Visit my bees page to learn all about the different roles within the beehive, different bee species, beekeeping, and more!