Case Study

African Honeyguide Birds

Leading hunters to honey

Partners Involved: African honeyguide birds, hunters
Type of Partnership: Indigenous
Partnership Models: Sensor

Honey guides and honey gatherers: interspecies communication in a symbiotic relationship to identifying honey.

In a symbiotic relationship believed to be thousands—maybe even millions of years old—honeyguide birds lead people to honey. The birds listen for certain human calls to figure out who wants to play follow-the-leader.

“They’re definitely not domesticated, and they’re in no way coerced,” says Claire Spottiswoode, a researcher and zoologist at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom. “And they’re not taught in any conventional way as well. Humans are not deliberately going out there and training honeyguides.”

In 1989, a scientist named H.A. Isack published a rigorous analysis in the journal Science showing that the honeyguide legends were true. The birds flutter in front of people, tweet, and fly from tree to tree to guide hunters to bees’ nests that are hidden inside the trunks of hollow trees. After the hunters subdue the bees with smoke and hack open the tree to harvest the honey, the birds feast on their favorite food—discarded beeswax.

Richard Wrangham, a biological anthropologist at Harvard University calls the relationship “extraordinary” and believes that “the critical feature of the relationship is the fact that humans have fire as well as axes” — the tools that let them harvest honey. The birds may have evolved an innate desire to guide people to honey.”

Wrangham also wonders whether this species declines in parts of Africa where humans simply buy honey from the store and questions whether humans should be collecting honey in national parks to promote honeyguide conservation.

SDGs Targeted: SDG 2 on Zero Hunger, SDG 15 on Life on Land

Links & Sources:

Case Study

African Honeyguide Birds

Leading hunters to honey

Partners Involved: African honeyguide birds, hunters
Type of Partnership: Indigenous
Partnership Models: Sensor

Honey guides and honey gatherers: interspecies communication in a symbiotic relationship to identifying honey.

In a symbiotic relationship believed to be thousands—maybe even millions of years old—honeyguide birds lead people to honey. The birds listen for certain human calls to figure out who wants to play follow-the-leader.

“They’re definitely not domesticated, and they’re in no way coerced,” says Claire Spottiswoode, a researcher and zoologist at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom. “And they’re not taught in any conventional way as well. Humans are not deliberately going out there and training honeyguides.”

In 1989, a scientist named H.A. Isack published a rigorous analysis in the journal Science showing that the honeyguide legends were true. The birds flutter in front of people, tweet, and fly from tree to tree to guide hunters to bees’ nests that are hidden inside the trunks of hollow trees. After the hunters subdue the bees with smoke and hack open the tree to harvest the honey, the birds feast on their favorite food—discarded beeswax.

Richard Wrangham, a biological anthropologist at Harvard University calls the relationship “extraordinary” and believes that “the critical feature of the relationship is the fact that humans have fire as well as axes” — the tools that let them harvest honey. The birds may have evolved an innate desire to guide people to honey.”

Wrangham also wonders whether this species declines in parts of Africa where humans simply buy honey from the store and questions whether humans should be collecting honey in national parks to promote honeyguide conservation.

SDGs Targeted: SDG 2 on Zero Hunger, SDG 15 on Life on Land

Links & Sources: