Honeyguide birds unite with honey badgers to locate bees nest

Study finds that honeyguide birds communicate with human honey badgers in Tanzania to find bees' nests in large-scale research
Shubhangi Dua
A greater honeyguide feeding on beeswax in Niassa Special Reserve, Mozambique
A greater honeyguide feeding on beeswax in Niassa Special Reserve, Mozambique

Dominic Cram / PLOS 

Foraging wild honey has a huge cultural significance and honey badgering continues to remain a traditional practice in many parts of Africa. 

The ingredient is also an important source of high-energy food serving as a valuable energy resource providing essential sustenance and calories. 

While the sight of honeyguide birds leading humans to bees’ nests may be a common occurrence, evidence for cooperation between them has recently emerged.

The new study is the first large-scale search for scientific evidence to prove the interaction between humans and birds to find wild honey nests.

The leading author of the study from the University of Cape Town, Dr Jessica van der Wal says, “While researching honeyguides, we have been guided to bees' nests by honeyguide birds thousands of times, but none of us have ever seen a bird and a badger interact to find honey.”

Initiating large-scale research

The team comprising of young researchers from nine African countries was led by researchers at the University of Cambridge in collaboration with the University of Cape Town. They interviewed nearly 400 honey hunters across 11 communities in Africa.

A statement from the researchers states that people in honey-forging communities have searched for wild honey for generations through the help of honeyguide birds. 

Most communities (80 percent)had never seen the interaction between honey badgers and honeyguide birds and most communities were doubtful of the theory. 

However, three communities in Tanzania presented different notions with many people affirming cooperation between honeyguide birds and honey badgers to get honey and beeswax from bees’ nests, the statement said. 

The majority of individuals making up 61 percent of the Hadzabe honey-hunters group confirmed the interaction with the birds. 

Co-author of the study, Dr Brian Wood from the University of California said that Hadzabe hunter-gatherers quietly move through the landscape while hunting animals with bows and arrows. These forgers are poised to observe badgers and honeyguides interacting without disturbing them. 

“Over half of the hunters reported witnessing these interactions, on a few rare occasions,” he said.

Honeyguide birds unite with honey badgers to locate bees nest
A honey-hunter harvests a bees’ nest in the Niassa Special Reserve Mozambique


The study further suggests that cooperative behavior might be limited to specific regions or certain populations of honey badgers. In tracing the roles played during the interaction, researchers constructed a step-by-step hypothesis.

The approach concludes that bird seeing and approaching the badger is highly plausible, however, honeyguide chattering to the badger remains unclear as the latter have poor hearing and bad eyesight.

Researchers propose that Tanzanian honey hunters could be exceptions and may have developed the skills and knowledge needed to cooperate with honeyguide birds. These skills are passed down from one generation to the next.

Additionally, it’s possible that these skills have been developed in other parts of Africa but still remain unexplored. The study notes that over time humans acquired the skills of interpreting the calls and behaviors of honeyguide birds to find the wild bees’ nests. 

Interaction plausibility

Senior author of the study, Dr Claire Spottiswoode from the University of Cambridge's Department of Zoology said, "The honeyguides call to the humans, and the humans call back - it's a kind of conversation as they move through the landscape towards the bees' nests.”

The research emphasizes that humans can be useful partners to honeyguides due to their ability to control fire and tools. For instance, badgerers can cut down trees to smoke and subdue the bees before they open their nests.

Bees have a high potential to get aggressive and even sting birds to death when their anger is triggered.

Dr Spottiwoode adds that speculation indicates that the guiding behavior of honeyguides might have evolved through interactions with honey badgers.

"Although, the birds switched to working with humans when we came on the scene because of our superior skills in subduing bees and accessing bees' nests. It's an intriguing idea, but hard to test," he said.

The report is published today in the Journal of Zoology.

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