Honey badgers are renowned for their resilience. Holding their own against lions has gained them the status of one of the toughest animals out here. But it goes further than confrontations with some of the largest and meanest predators.
A honey badgers’ diet consists of a very wide variety of prey. Insects and their larvae, feature strongly, a favourite of which is the larvae of dung beetles, hidden away in an incredibly hard, compacted dung ball. These are cracked open as a delicacy. Scorpions are disarmed by biting off the tail first and are then devoured. Spiders, locusts and centipedes fill in the rest of the invertebrate starters.
Small rodents, birds and their eggs, scrub hares and some small antelope are also indulged in. And of course contributing to their name is their love for bees and the tasty, energy-rich honey. Known to raid hives for the honey and honeycomb, their tolerance of the bee stings is incredible, being stung hundreds of times doesn’t affect them as they continue to gorge themselves.
Over and above the stings from bees and scorpions they have a tolerance for venom from something even greater.
Many people have intense phobias of snakes – known as Ophidiophobia – one the most common ones out there. For the honey badger snakes don’t arouse any such fear; they remain undaunted, no matter which snake it is. From pythons measuring up to 4.5m to cobras, puff adders and even black mambas.
Snatching at them and tormenting them, tiring them out as the snake defends itself, and eventually biting the snake behind the head to break the spinal cord is their usual method of attack. Many a time a honey badger has been seen eating the head of a venomous snake including the venom glands.
This poses the question whether they are tolerant of the venom. For venom to have an effect it needs to be injected into the bloodstream. Cytotoxic venom affects the cell membranes, neurotoxic venom affects the nervous system and haemotoxic venom the makeup and consistency of the blood. Ingesting the venom doesn’t affect the honey badger.
On the odd occasion though, the honey badger is not quick enough to avoid being bitten. The dense mantle of fur along the back and neck protects against the bite. Their skin is very thick and has poor blood supply due to there being no blood vessels close to the surface, and so the venom is spread very slowly. The face is the only real vulnerable place to be bitten that may have any effect.
Of all the reptilian prey puff adders appear to be high on the preferred list, being eaten regularly. However in a few instances where they had been seen feeding on puff adders, the badger keels over on top of their meal mid-way through. As it often turns out, the puff adder had most likely struck true and landed an effective bite, sending the badger into a trance of what were likely some exceptionally vivid dreams! Inevitable though, the honey badger would recover after an hour or two, getting up and finishing off the meal before trotting away.
I have also read a story where an eccentric South African author and naturalist experimented on two different honey badgers by injecting them with large quantities of black mamba venom – “enough to kill an ox”. It sounds rather a twisted tale, and the venom was injected directly into the veins of the honey badgers. Both recovered completely within an hour.
Whether the tolerance to the venom is built up over time by exposure through successive bites or is a genetic trait since they are such tough and resilient creatures remains to be discovered, but handling venom better than almost every other animal is only one way through which they certainly deserve their reputation.