Renan Ozturk’s self portrait of his feet as they dangle in mid-air with Mauli, the last honey hunter, who ascends his hand woven bamboo rope in the background. Ozturk’s ankles are tapped to protect them from getting stung by the nearby bees. PHOTOGRAPH BY RENAN OZTURK
Renan Ozturk and his team admit they weren’t prepared for the Himalayan giant honeybees. They were dangling 200 feet in the air off a cliff documenting Mauli Dhan, the last remaining person to go after the hallucinogenic honey the bees produce in eastern Nepal, when Ozturk realized his American-made bee suit was no match for the local stingers. Himalayan honeybees are twice the size of American honeybees, and they stung right through the protective clothing.
“I’m used to doing really challenging mountain climbing stories [with the likes of Alex Honnold] and coming from that climbing background we thought this was going to be no big deal,” the Utah native said. "But it was more than we bargained for."
Renan Ozturk covered in a 11mm static rope moments before he descends down to document the honey harvest. Ben Ayers, the producer, hangs in the background with the honey hunters performing the dangerous task below. PHOTOGRAPH BY MATT IRVING
Ozturk mounted cameras to Mauli’s main bamboo pole, which captured this shot, as he stepped off the bamboo ladder and onto the cliff without a rope. PHOTOGRAPH BY RENAN OZTURK
This is a POV from a camera mounted to the bamboo pole of Mauli, the last honey hunter, at the last cliff location. Asdhan, assistant to Mauli, clings to the cliff face with no rope as Mauli cuts the honey into the basket. PHOTOGRAPH BY RENAN OZTURK
Renan Ozturk ascends by rope after documenting the honey harvest. PHOTOGRAPH BY MARK SYNNOTT
Mauli Dhan climbs a hundred feet up a bamboo rope ladder to his prize: a hive filled with neurotoxic honey. Smoke from smoldering grass disorients the bees, possibly reducing the number of stings Mauli will suffer. PHOTOGRAPH BY RENAN OZTURK
Mauli Dhan performs the first step of the honey harvest which is brushing hundreds of thousands of bees off the giant hive with his bamboo pole. He chants in his Kulng language a prayer, Ozturk says, which asks them to leave peacefully and repopulate elsewhere before he cuts into their home. PHOTOGRAPH BY RENAN OZTURK
A six foot wide Himalayan bee hive is lifted to the top of the cliff just after Mauli cut it loose. The team uses two wooden pegs, which are threaded through the hive, to bring the valuable harvest to solid ground. PHOTOGRAPH BY RENAN OZTURK
Renan Ozturk snapped this selfie while being stung by bees and spinning uncontrollably. "It was such an honor to be trusted by this remote culture to tell their story and document a tradition that may soon be lost." PHOTOGRAPH BY RENAN OZTURK
And while Mauli climbs the cliffs to the beehives without any protection, harness, or even shoes, Ozturk and writer Mark Synnott carried camera equipment, 200 pounds of rope, and an improvised wooden seat so the harness wouldn’t cut off the circulation in their legs.
“The weight of the rope is really challenging to have on you and you have to have enough rope to be able to escape to the ground in case you were having an allergic reaction,” Ozturk said.
In addition to lugging around cumbersome equipment, Ozturk had to find a way to stabilize himself in the open air so he could photograph Mauli’s journey.
“Once you rappel down to the space, you just start spinning uncontrollably, so you go off to the side somewhere to stabilize, but there was not enough time and it was too difficult to do that,” he said.
Ozturk and Synnott were only able to face the action for about ten seconds before spinning wildly out of control, so the two came up with a way to kick off of one another to reach a steady spot for a longer period of time.
“It’s a very hard situation to be able to focus and it also happens to be pretty fast,” said Ozturk, who says he was stung about 30 to 50 times. “The honey hunters have a process that they go through where everything happens quickly and efficiently because they don’t have all of this modern equipment.”
The most important thing, however, was to be a “silent fly on the wall,” Ozturk said.
“You just want to give the subject a space—not touch them, not really interfere with anything that they’re doing because it could lead to their death,” he said.
This was especially challenging, as Ozturk had cultivated a close relationship with Mauli. He spent hours interviewing him in the Kulung man’s home, tagging along as he harvested crops in the fields of his small village, and even speaking to him in Nepali, which Ozturk had learned during a study abroad program.
“Overall by the end of this, we felt more like friends and part of a team rather than just being there as photographers,” he said.
Since returning home, Ozturk has developed a severe allergic reaction to bee stings that has landed him in the hospital.
While on an assignment in the Congo, with limited access to healthcare, he had to administer an EpiPen as he felt his airways closing and his face swelling.
“I guess it works in an opposite way,” he said. “It’s kind of counterintuitive, the more you get stung the more of an allergy you develop.”
But even an allergy won’t stop Ozturk from returning to Nepal. He’s been visiting the country for 15 years, and has no shortage of future story ideas in the Himalayan country. To him, all of the trouble was more than worth it.
“It’s really amazing to watch despite all of our challenges,” he said. “It’s more impressive to see what they’re doing up there and to get the chance to document it.”
By Hannah Lang
Published in July 10, 2017 in National Geographic