One of my favourite things to do is go for long walks in the bush. Walking heightens your senses and gives you a completely different perspective as opposed to being in a vehicle. We’re often driving and trying to find amazing sightings and sometimes we can forget to simply stop and take it all in. Yesterday a few of us rangers woke up earlier than usual and set off to walk the northern parts of Londolozi. Whilst waiting for first light, we sat on the hood of the Land Rover sipping on some hot coffee we’d brought along and told stories. As the sun came up we put our feet on the ground and began our small adventure.

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If it’s honey you are in search of, this is not the team to find it for you – we could still use a bit of practise in following honeyguides.

One thing that you cannot appreciate as much from the safety of the vehicle is how much a part of the bush you truly feel when you walk. We were aware of every rustle in the bush, caused by francolin to rhino; we snacked on the fruits of trees and bushes that our trackers had taught us were edible and we wandered through areas that we never knew existed on Londolozi. This was once a way of life for most people who lived out here. My mind then began to wander. In too many instances to describe, man has removed himself from nature, only to seek it out every now and again, and sometimes not even at all. But before my mind could take me too far down that road, I recognized a bird call that reminded me that some have not yet lost their relationship with nature. The call was short and shrill “vic-tor…vic-tor…vic-tor”, that of a Greater Honeyguide – a bird so named because of stories across Africa where these birds have led people to honey.

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Greater honeyguides are unable to access bees wax (for which they have a great affinity) inside the hives themselves, but have been known to lead humans and honey badgers toward these hives to assist them in opening them up. Photograph by Claire Spottiswoode

We desperately tried to find the honeyguide, in the hope that we would be able to experience this for ourselves, to no avail. But there are places in Africa where these birds talk, and where people actually listen. In fact, in East Africa and parts of Northern Mozambique, it is known that honeyguides live up to their names and direct people toward bee-hives, which contain the sweet honey that a select few seek out. Local hunters and gatherers have been known to whistle a unique call which attracts the honeyguide, and the bird then calls as it flies toward the closest bee-hive, enticing its human follower along. Once a hive has been found, the honey is extracted by humans and the honeyguides feed on the beeswax, which they have great affinity for, but cannot reach on their own – a great example of mutualism between man and a completely wild bird.

This behavior shown by honeyguides was thought to have been lost in areas where (as a result of modern synthesized sugar) there was no need to obtain honey. But a recent article in the journal Science showed that the use of a call uttered by local Mozambicans more than tripled the probability of finding honey in the field! This has even been seen in areas where honeyguides have not been followed for many years. What makes this incredible is that newly fledged chicks would not yet have had the opportunity to “learn” this behavior from their “guiding” parents. This suggests a deeply embedded inherent trait.

Elmon Mhlongo has lived in this area in and around Londolozi for nearly 60 years. His brother Renias for nearly 50 years. They both remember, as young boys, their father calling to a honeyguide, the honeyguide responding and directing him to honey. “He didn’t use the typical ‘brrr-hmm’ call that was used in the case of the study in Mozambique, his was different but it worked,” says Renias Mhlongo. Elmon then told me of what happened when the hive was found; “my father would light a small fire to pacify the bees and harvest some of the honey, and leave the honeyguide to feast on some of the beeswax.” Elmon speaks of his father almost always getting stung a few times but then chuckles, “you see, if you are going to take something from nature to feed your family, you need to realize that nothing out here is for free.”

Chris Goodman harvesting honey

There are now so many other ways of harvesting honey and synthesising sugars, that many have thought that the relationship between humans and honeyguides had disappeared. However, recent studies have shown that this relationship could still exist.

Although our unforeseen honey expedition didn’t quite work out by just expecting the bird to simply take us there, it was an opportunity to look into a unique relationship between man and wild bird. Does this relationship still exist in the Sabi Sands Game Reserve and surrounding areas? The relationship between honeyguides and man has not been exercised here for nearly 30 years, but I’d like to believe it could still exist.

Filed under Wildlife

2 Comments

on In Search of Honey
    Les Moodie says:

    I remember as a child in Rhodesia, my father and a guide following a honey guide. He said it was an amazing experience. They did find honey!

    Lea says:

    Nice article Shawn. Mother Nature surely is an amazing woman. Animals are really incredibly smart. Man and bird work together for their common good. From what I hear, bee stings are a good thing and some people even subject themselves to bee stings for various ailments. Thanks for this interesting and thought provoking blog. One thing you mentioned that is absolutely true – humans have lost their way when it comes to nature and the surroundings – a walk in the bush is the greatest thing and you see things you would never see while driving.

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