Silently, like a spider on a frail strand of web, Mani Lal starts down the swaying rope ladder.

With only a cord around his waist to secure him, he dangles over a 395-foot cliff. The slightest error of judgment would mean death.

His quest: honey from the world's largest honeybee.

Like his father and forefathers in central Nepal, Mani Lal is a master honey hunter. Thousands of angry bees fill the air as he plunges a bamboo pole into a nest nearly as large as he is. Yet the only extra protection he wears is a loose cape draped over his head, and a pair of long pants.

Wielding his poles like giant chopsticks, he carves thick slabs of honeycomb into a bamboo basket lined with goatskin. When full, the basket will be lowered to companions at the cliff base.

"The sound of the giant bees is terrifying," report Eric Valli and Diane Summers in the current National Geographic. But Mani Lal's movements are swift and calm. He has done this many times. He is 64.

Mani Lal will not start down the ladder to get the honey before chanting the sacred mantras. As he sprinkles grains of rice in the air, he recites the different names of Pholo, god of the forest. His people, the Gurungs, practice a mixture of Hinduism, Buddhism and animism.

Mani Lai will not harvest the honey when the god is not pleased. When his father, whose belief had not been as strong, descended the ladder one day, the bees attacked him by the thousands. He was blinded by a sting.

Mani Lal decides the appropriate time for every honey hunt, one in spring, another in fall. Among all the hunters in his village, only the nine in his group may hunt honey. Each inherited this right from his father.

"Together we can go where one man alone could not travel," Mani Lal says. There are no roads in these foothills of the Himalayas. Decades of porters have worn paths through emerald tiers of young corn. Most of the forest has been cleared. Only the steepest slopes are still wooded.

As the trees have dwindled, so have the bees. Mani Lal's grandfather took 600 nests a year. Last year Mani Lal took 80.

Mani Lal guides his hunters along woodland trails and directs each of their tasks. He alone speaks with the gods. He alone descends the ladder.

To unveil the bee-covered golden comb, he pushes a flaming bundle of leaves under the bees with a bamboo pole. They furiously depart in the smoke.

To capture Mani Lal on film, Valli rappels down the precipice on a nylon rope - the first Westerner to join the hunter in his dangerous spot.

Bees surround Mani Lal. Their nest has two parts: the honeycomb, attached to the cliff, and the brood comb, the lower crescent containing pupae, eggs and larvae. He uses a pole to push two short sticks, tied to a cord dropped from the cliff top, into the brood comb.

When the comb is free, it is lowered to the ground. A valuable source of wax, it is so large it has to be folded in two to be carried to the hunters' camp.

"It's raining honey," shout villagers at the base of the cliff, as they thrust pots and pans to catch the sticky liquid that Mani Lal frees from the honeycomb.

By the time Mani Lal finishes filling the first basket, it's brimming with almost 4 gallons of honeycomb. As it reaches the ground, villagers swoop upon it, dipping in bowls and breaking off small chunks of comb to chew. It is a honey feast.

In less than an hour, Mani Lal has harvested perhaps 10 gallons of honey and 20 pounds of wax. He is satisfied with the yield from this nest, as he has been with most of the 40 others he cut during the campaign.

His group's success, however, carries a hidden price, report Valli and Summers. Although the hunters leave some nests untouched as "seeds" for the future, their destruction of brood combs has contributed to the insects' decline. But the extensive loss of forest habitat is an even worse threat.

Mani Lal says the next season will be his last. His sons have no interest in harvesting the sweet treasure. With him, the honey quest will end.