Honey Guides

Honey Guides in my Garden – Herman Sauer Photography
Honey Guides

Honey guides are birds that guide humans to beehives. People get the honey and the birds get the beeswax and larvae. The relationship between the birds and people in places like Mozambique may go very far back in history.

This is a complicated story. The Greater honeyguide is a brood parasite, and lays its eggs in the nest of other birds. When the honeyguide egg hatches, the nestling murders the other nestlings. This means that the honeyguide never knows its own parents, so the parents cannot have taught young birds the guiding pattern. 

It is possible that young birds observe the behavior of older birds and learn how to guide humans to honey that way, or it may be based in instinct. The Greater honeyguide is one of the few birds that can digest beeswax, so when people destroy a hive for its honey, the honeyguide feasts on what is left. 

The story gets even more complicated. In some areas, people who wish to find honey have a special call that attracts the honeyguides. Amazingly, the calls used to attract the birds are different by locality. The honeyguide then indicates to the humans to follow it to a wild beehive. 

People looking for beehives have a low rate of success. However, calling honeyguides produces success in finding the beehives successfully 66% of the time, and people guided by the bird, without calling, have a 75% successful hunting rate. The difference is that when the bird signals to people first, it has already located a wild beehive (often in the hollow of an old tree).

First documented in the 1500s, this mutualistic association between humans and bird may go deep into the distant past. What is most remarkable is that people communicate with wild birds, who then communicate with the humans.

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