Nov 22

Animal Relationships: Honeyguide and Humans

The honey badger casually struts around the scrub as if to say ‘don’t mess with me’; and, indeed, few animals do. It has a reputation as one of the most aggressive and fearless animals in the world and despite its relatively small size will tackle predators as large as leopards and lions with reckless abandon.


Photo: Jaganath

But the honey badger also has, as its name suggests, a sweet tooth: it is very fond of honey. Many natural history books detail a relationship between the honey badger and a small relative of the woodpecker called the honeyguide. The honey badger is said to follow the bird to a bee’s nest, rip open the hive, and eat its fill of honey. The honeyguide benefits as well, for now that the nest has been broken into the bird can fly down and also get a meal. But the so-called relationship between honeyguide and honey badger remains controversial since there is a surprising lack of evidence to reliably confirm it, and some scientists believe that no such partnership actually exists.

What certainly does exist, however, is a partnership between the honeyguide and man. In particular, the Boran honey-gatherers of northern Kenya follow the bird to find the nearest bee’s nest. To get the bird’s attention, the Borans whistle into their clasped fists until the honeyguide appears. The honeyguide replies with a special chattering call that it makes on no other occasion. The bird then flies off but stops constantly, allowing the Boran people to catch up before flying off again. Both man and bird communicate frequently to one another as they are travelling: the honeyguide displays white feathers on its tail as it flies ahead to make itself more visible, and the men whistle and shout to reassure the bird that they are still following. This pattern of leading and following is repeated until the bird finally directs the Borans to a beehive.


Greater honeyguide
Photo: Wilferd Duckitt

The Borans open up the hive and take their share of honey. Afterwards, the bird can fly down and feed as well, mainly on the bee grubs, eggs, and even beeswax (the honeyguide is one of the few animals that can actually digest wax), but the Borans, as part of their tradition, also leave behind a bit of honey on a pointed stick for the honeyguide to eat. Legend has it that if you do not leave behind a gift of honeycomb for the bird, the next time the honeyguide will lead you to a venomous black mamba instead of a bee’s nest.

The video below, taken from David Attenborough’s fantastic Trials of Life series, showcases how man and honeyguide co-operate together to get a meal.

Both parties obviously benefit from this arrangement. When hunting in unfamiliar areas, the Borans take an average of nine hours to find a suitable beehive when not guided by a honeyguide, versus little over three hours when they are guided. The honeyguide, meanwhile, manages to reach food it would otherwise be unable to obtain, for its beak is too slender and delicate to break into a bee nest unaided.

The fact that the honeyguide has a digestive system specially adapted to deal with wax shows that it has been eating from bee hives for a very long time indeed, which in turn means that its relationship with man is an equally ancient one. As rock paintings in the Sahara show, humans have been collecting honey in this part of the world for some 200,000 years, so the partnership between man and bird probably formed as far back as then. That makes the honeyguide our oldest companion, beating dogs by well over 150,000 years.

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