Before becoming a ranger at Londolozi, each trainee has to learn the roads by walking them solo, with a highlighted route on a map, a radio and a rifle. It was during my walks that I had some of my most memorable experiences but there is one in particular that I will forever cherish. I was guided by a honeyguide.
Walking along a road parallel to a tall riparian forest, fully engaging my senses as I entered the thicker area, I heard an unfamiliar bird call. Grabbing my binoculars, I managed with great excitement to discover that it was a Greater Honeyguide and that it was making the ancient call that many tribesmen in East and North Africa would follow to hopefully be rewarded with honey.
Some of the oldest rock paintings found in South Africa show bees swarming around a pot of honey and some even show stick-like male figures smoking out a beehive. I felt really privileged to be able to be a part of this early example of humans having a mutualistic relationship with animals (mutualistic is when both species benefit).
The Masai or Hadza tribes will whistle a unique call passed down by their ancestors to allure the Honeyguide bird; the bird then answers back with a call they make only when they communicate with humans. The tribesmen will then follow the bird and as they get closer the bird will change its call, letting them know they are close to the honey. To reward the bird for leading them there they always leave honeycomb on the floor for the bird to eat as it is difficult for the bird to access the bee hive itself.
It is not normally humans that are led to hives though. It is usually (although “supposedly” would probably be a better word) one of Africa’s nuggetiest little creatures: the Honey Badger.
The theory of the honey badger being led to hives by the honeyguide has not been conclusively proven; it could be more of a commensalistic relationship than anything else (in which only one species benefits but the other isn’t affected).
It could possibly be that it’s simply a coincidence that the two species are] at the bee hive at the same time, regularly.
The Honey Badger has an acute sense of smell and should be able to locate the hive by itself. The honeyguide will wait around until the honey badger leaves and will eat the left over honeycomb and larvae.
In this relationship the Honeyguide needs the Honey badger and not the other way around as a Honey badger can find a hive without the birds help but the Honeyguide needs the Honey badger to open up the hive in order to access the honey.
Both species operate at different times of day as well; honeyguides are strictly diurnal whilst honey badgers are far more nocturnal. It would therefore seem likely that a highly specialised relationship would develop between two species which operate at such different times. In winter months when mornings are colder and food is scarcer, honey badgers do often forage into daylight hours, but would that be with enough consistency to be able to strike up a relationship with the bird?
Whatever the case, it still makes for a great story. And the birds do lead people to hives, so why not the badgers? Tribal lore has it that if you open a hive to which a honeyguide has led you, but then don’t leave it anything, next time it will lead you to a hollow where a black mamba is resting, or a vicious wild cat, or something equally as dreadful.
All the bird is really after is beeswax and grubs, not the honey itself. Rather be safe than sorry; just leave it some…